Environmental sustainability is gaining increasing importance within the cloud industry, as it is inherently a more sustainable alternative to legacy IT infrastructure. According to a collaborative study by Microsoft and WSP, cloud has the capability to improve energy efficiency by 93 per cent and produce 98 per cent fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to premises IT infrastructure. Similarly, a study conducted by Accenture claims that the transition to public cloud technology can substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 59 million tonnes per year, an impact equivalent to removing 22 million cars from the road. Cloud service providers (CSPs) are now taking additional measures to achieve their net-zero targets, and facilitating enterprise cloud users in driving their sustainability initiatives. Against this backdrop, a “green cloud” trend has emerged.
Facets of cloud sustainability
The key aspects of green cloud encompass practices and technologies aimed at minimising the environmental impact of cloud computing, collectively contributing to the creation of a sustainable cloud infrastructure:
- Energy efficiency: Green cloud initiatives prioritise energy-efficient practices, such as optimising server utilisation, employing advanced cooling systems, implementing smart power management and maximising the use of natural light to reduce the overall energy consumption.
- Virtualisation: With virtualisation, multiple virtual machines can operate on a single physical server, effectively reducing the number of required servers and leading to energy and resource savings.
- Renewable energy: Green cloud practices aim to power data centres and cloud services with solar, wind or hydroelectric power. CSPs invest in clean energy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and minimise GHG emissions.
- Lifecycle management: Green cloud initiatives promote the sustainable lifecycle management of equipment, which includes proper disposal and recycling of e-waste through the use of recycled materials, and the extension of the lifespan of IT assets through regular maintenance and upgrades.
- Offsetting carbon emissions: Some CSPs participate in carbon offset programmes to compensate for their carbon emissions. They may invest in initiatives that reduce GHG emissions, such as reforestation or renewable energy projects.
- Green certifications: CSPs can earn certifications such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or ISO 14001, demonstrating their sustainable practices and environmental responsibility.
Embracing a green cloud approach offers benefits from both the environment and business perspectives, as it substantially reduces the carbon footprint of cloud operations by optimising server utilisation and minimising power consumption. It prioritises the use of renewable energy sources and reduces dependence on fossil fuels, helping mitigate carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions. Moreover, green cloud initiatives promote longer hardware lifecycles, recycling and responsible e-waste management, thereby leading to reduced soil degradation. These benefits collectively help combat climate change and protect natural ecosystems.
The adoption of green cloud technologies by enterprises results in lower electricity bills and operational expenses, in turn leading to substantial cost savings. As the cloud provider assumes responsibility for the underlying hardware and other components, businesses can effectively cut down on the significant capital outlay required to build traditional data centres. Cloud computing, in general, provides scalability and flexibility. It allows businesses to effortlessly adjust their computing resources according to requirements. Green cloud retains these benefits while integrating sustainable practices, enabling businesses to efficiently scale up or down while minimising their environmental impact. Moreover, green cloud initiatives stimulate innovation, fostering the development of energy-efficient hardware, better cooling systems and energy management techniques, and renewable energy integration. These advancements not only contribute to broader sustainability efforts across various industries, but also create a positive brand image for businesses that embrace green cloud initiatives and showcase a commitment to eco-friendly practices.
There are several challenges associated with implementing and maintaining sustainable initiatives. Common impediments faced in the transition towards green cloud are:
- High initial investment: Green cloud components such as energy-efficient hardware, renewable energy infrastructure and other sustainable technologies often involve considerable upfront investments. High capital expenditure can pose a challenge, especially for small and medium-sized organisations with limited resources.
- Legacy infrastructure: Most organisations have pre-existing IT infrastructure that is not compatible with green cloud standards. Retrofitting or upgrading these systems may require significant modifications and asset replacements, and entails challenges such as increased complexity, workflow disruption and additional expenses.
- Technology integration: Green cloud practices involve the integration of various technologies such as virtualisation and energy management systems. Seamless coordination and integration of these technologies can be complex and require specialised knowledge.
- Limited renewable energy availability: While utilising renewable energy is a crucial aspect of green cloud, the availability of clean energy sources can be limited in certain locations. Accessing reliable and affordable renewable energy can be challenging for enterprises, especially in areas where renewable infrastructure is underdeveloped.
- Performance trade-offs: Some green cloud practices such as aggressive power management techniques can affect performance and compatibility. Organisations should strive to strike a balance between energy efficiency and maintaining optimal performance levels, ensuring that green practices do not compromise the quality of service or user experience.
- Regulatory compliance: Policies and regulations related to energy consumption, emissions and waste management differ across countries and evolve over time. Adopting green cloud practices while ensuring compliance with changing standards requires continuous monitoring, updates and adjustments, which can be challenging for organisations.
The “big three” CSPs — Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud and Microsoft — currently have a 66 per cent share in the global cloud market. Here are some recent sustainability initiatives taken by them:
AWS offers a range of tools and services to help optimise the energy consumption of enterprise workloads. For instance, the company has announced the Customer Carbon Footprint Tool for its cloud customers, to help corporate customers track, measure, review and even forecast the carbon emissions generated from their AWS cloud usage. Customers will be able to view data on geographic emissions and access monthly reports to measure changes in their carbon footprint. The company also announced the addition of a new “Sustainability Pillar” to the AWS Well-Architected Framework. The pillar provides guidance on designing and operating cloud workloads, enabling businesses to incorporate sustainability into their cloud architecture.
Overall, Amazon remains the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy — a position it has held since 2020. The company expanded its renewable energy capacity by 8.3 GW in 2022 and is on track to power its operations with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025. The company is committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.
Microsoft has stated that its current focus is on three key areas: carbon-aware workload scheduling by adopting the multi-constraint and multi-objective optimisation framework; boosting resource utilisation efficiency to minimise future hardware purchases and conserve energy during the hardware manufacturing process; and optimising device lifespan and recycling by predicting hardware failures and developing management systems to fully utilise hardware with different levels of reliability. Additionally, Microsoft has productised emissions tracking and monitoring with its Emissions Impact Dashboard. The company offers features that assist enterprises in calculating the tangible impact of their cloud usage across the value chain.
Google asserts commitment to carbon neutrality in its operations, with 78 per cent of its waste diverted from landfills, 100 per cent renewable energy usage for all cloud regions, a power usage effectiveness of 1.1 and two times more efficiency than a traditional data centre. The company aims to operate its data centres on carbon-free energy, 24×7, by 2030. Additionally, it offers a collection of tools to help enterprises accurately report the carbon emissions associated with the usage of Google Cloud services, enabling them to take proactive actions towards reducing their carbon footprint. The Carbon Sense suite combines features from various Google Cloud products, such as Active Assist and Carbon Footprint, to support users in making strides towards achieving environmental sustainability goals.
The CSP also offers granular metering across its entire cloud infrastructure to provide detailed emissions information. Furthermore, Google has introduced a sustainability-focused upgrade to its existing tool, the Unattended Project Recommender. This tool utilises machine learning to identify and eliminate unused code running on Google servers, which can account for significant extra carbon emissions. Google estimates that its monthly savings recently reached 600,000 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent.
The green cloud movement continues to gain momentum as its benefits and long-term environmental goals outweigh the initial challenges. The future of green cloud will rely on a synergistic combination of industry collaboration, knowledge-sharing, technological advancements and regulatory developments. Green cloud will undoubtedly continue to evolve, playing a vital role in fostering more sustainable and responsible digital infrastructure.