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Cloud Computing for a Greener Future: Supporting UN Goal 13 with Sustainable Cloud Infrastructure

With the increasing usage of cloud computing, its environmental impact has also been growing as a concern. Cloud data centers consume huge amounts of energy so understanding what impact it has on the environment is important to businesses. For most businesses using cloud computing, emissions from the cloud fall into a category known as scope 3, which means that they are not produced on the company's own premises but in the supply chain.

In this article, we'll break down the complexities around this topic and share some strategies businesses can adopt to reduce their carbon footprint.


The environmental impact of cloud computing

According to a report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, data centers in the US alone were expected to consume approximately 73 billion kWh in 2020. This energy consumption leads to a significant carbon footprint, with data centers estimated to produce about 2% of the world's carbon emissions.


However, all is not doom and gloom. Several cloud services providers, such as Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services, have committed to using renewable energy sources to power their data centers. But not all cloud providers are created equal when it comes to sustainability, and some still rely heavily on non-renewable energy sources. Even for one provider, there’s a lot of variance between different data centers across the globe. The below graphic shows the variance in renewable energy sources across GCP data centers.

This image shows the comparison of renewable energy usage across different data centers for Google Cloud
Google Cloud Renewable Energy Comparison

Strategies for sustainable cloud computing

When it comes to sustainability in the cloud, we can look at various strategies to make our cloud usage more friendly to the environment.


Choose the right cloud service provider

The first thing we can do is to look at and understand the climate commitments of different providers. As an end-user, it is important to understand the difference between carbon-free and carbon-neutral. Carbon-neutral is an equilibrium by which carbon emissions are balanced by carbon reduction so that net-zero carbon enters the atmosphere. On the other hand, carbon-free means no carbon emissions are being produced in the first place. It is always preferable to go carbon-free.


Choose the right data centers

The goal at this stage is to balance sustainability with other factors like cost, latency, and data regulations. As an example for the Google Cloud Platform, we can use this the region picker to estimate carbon emissions.


As the below example shows, based on our selected region, the recommended data centers change as we assign different levels of importance to carbon footprint, price, and latency.



Optimize cloud usage

One of the most effective strategies is to use auto-scaling technologies like Kubernetes to ensure that resources are allocated only when necessary. This can help reduce energy consumption and lower costs.

Another option is to leverage serverless computing to optimize cloud usage. With serverless computing, we don't need to worry about managing servers or infrastructure, and resources are allocated automatically based on demand.

This can reduce energy consumption, making it a more sustainable option for businesses.


Use carbon aware auto-scalers

There are auto-scalers that can prioritize low carbon emissions. For example, if we’re using Kubernetes, we can use Keda’s carbon aware scaler which is set up through config map. Although less practical on production workloads, we can scale down secondary or low-priority in a given geography if the impact on the environment is too high.


Hibernate instances outside working hours

Certain environments are not required 24x7, so we can review our usage and turn off resources during non-working hours. An example is a devtest environment, that can be hibernated to save energy outside of regular working hours.


Improve cloud data access

We can leverage edge computing and data caching to improve our data access mechanism. Edge computing enables data to be processed closer to where it is generated, reducing the need for data to be transferred back and forth between central data centers and end users. Data caching can also improve data access by storing frequently accessed data closer to end-users, reducing the need for data to be transferred over long distances. This can lead to faster access times, reduced network congestion, and lower energy consumption.


Benefits of sustainable cloud computing

There are several benefits to sustainable cloud computing for businesses.

  • Reduced environmental impact: This is the obvious one. Sustainable cloud computing practices can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of businesses and data centers, resulting in a positive impact on the environment.

  • Cost savings: By optimizing hardware and energy usage, businesses can save costs on hardware, maintenance, and energy bills. Read more on one of our cost-saving case studies in this post.

  • Compliance with regulations: Sustainable cloud computing can help businesses comply with environmental regulations and standards set by governments and regulatory bodies.

  • Enhanced reputation: Adopting sustainable cloud computing practices demonstrates a business's commitment to environmental stewardship, which can enhance its reputation among customers, investors, and other stakeholders.

Challenges and future of sustainable cloud computing

While sustainable cloud computing has many benefits, there are also challenges and barriers to its adoption. Some businesses may be hesitant to invest in sustainable cloud solutions due to concerns about increased costs and latency based on their primary location of business. Additionally, not all cloud providers have made sustainability a priority, making it challenging for businesses to make informed decisions when choosing a provider.

Looking to the future, sustainable cloud computing is expected to play an increasingly significant role in reducing carbon emissions and promoting environmental sustainability. As businesses and consumers become more conscious of the environmental impact of their activities, the demand for sustainable cloud solutions is likely to increase.

Conclusion

Sustainability in the cloud is a critical issue that businesses must try and address to reduce their carbon footprint and promote environmental sustainability. By adopting strategies to reduce energy consumption and promote sustainability, businesses can reap several benefits, including cost savings, enhanced reputation, and a reduced environmental impact. As we look to the future, sustainable cloud computing is likely to become an increasingly important part of the push toward a more sustainable world.


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