The complex layers of cloud computing sustainability

I’ve argued over the years that cloud computing is a step in the right direction when it comes to sustainable computing. My stance is often against environmental groups advocating against the many new energy-hungry data centers cloud companies are building.

The sustainability of public cloud computing is easy to understand. Simply put, the cloud does more processing and storage with the same number of physical servers and data centers. How? The multi-tenant approach to cloud computing places more applications, data sets, and users on a smaller amount of hardware, with capacity utilization rates ranging from approximately 85% to 95%. Compare this to traditional approaches where we own the servers and data centers, and the hardware resources are often used at very low capacity, often 3% to 7%.

Cloud requires less power for the same amount of processing. Does this cloud computing always make green, or should we say ‘greener’?

The word “always” rarely turns out to be correct. The same goes for the cloud: the problems are rarely black and white. To examine the sustainability of the cloud, let’s break it down into the two main layers.

Source of power

People often brag about how their electric car has a carbon footprint. It’s not that simple. Most power, at least in the US, is generated by burning fossil fuels. In 2021 it was 60% fossil fuel and the rest split between nuclear and renewable energy. No matter where you charge your Tesla or power your cloud or non-cloud data center, power consumption has a CO2 impact.

The argument for the sustainability of cloud computing is that it reduces the required hardware and data center space. However, processing both cloud and non-cloud applications requires electricity grids powered by fossil fuels.

The opportunities to reduce cloud-related carbon emissions depend not only on the use of shareable IT resources in public clouds, but also on the locations of the public cloud data centers. The trend is to have points of presence as close as possible to the users of the cloud services. Many of those points depend on carbon-heavy energy sources. In those cases, cloud computing is not so green.

You could argue that it is better to use a company-owned data center with a much lower use of server resources in an area served by renewable and/or nuclear power. In that case, opting for a point of presence of a cloud computing provider that only uses carbon-heavy generating power isn’t so green.

Optimizing Cloud Solutions and Resources

It doesn’t matter whether your power uses fossil fuels or not, a lot can be said about how you optimize the cloud resources you use. For example, if you give two developers the same business problem to solve using public cloud resources, you will usually find that one of them does a much better job of leveraging the minimum number of resources for the maximum effect in terms of value returned to Company.

This can have very different implications for the resources used to solve essentially the same problem. For example, the fully optimized version uses only three compute resources and two storage resources. The second uses three times more to solve the same problems. So the second solution also burns about three times the power.

Remember, there are fees and carbon impact penalties if you don’t place sufficiently optimized solutions on a public cloud. The more unnecessary resources, the more unnecessary cloud costs. Depending on how your public cloud provider powers its data center, this can also have a significant impact on carbon emissions.

It’s complicated

You can audit yourself or use a third-party organization to investigate how your use of public clouds is helping or harming the planet. These audits explain the ultimate source and location of the flow and how you specifically use the cloud resources.

The findings often surprise companies. Some believe their use of cloud computing is at the pinnacle of sustainability. Their cloud solutions could be very inefficient if they just lifted and moved applications and didn’t refactor them for cloud resource optimization. Or maybe a company doesn’t understand the true source of the power. It could be as simple as moving their workload to another region that uses only renewable energy sources as a source. Yes, there may be some impact on latency, but the positive impact on sustainability may outweigh this.

This is interesting stuff. I agree with using cloud computing to reduce carbon. However, like everything else, we need to understand what’s really going on before we can announce success.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

Leave a Comment