Cloud waste unnecessarily increases both carbon footprint and infrastructure costs. Enterprises can increase their ESG profiles and bottom lines by curbing cloud spending.
Cloud providers have long positioned their services as a more sustainable alternative to businesses running their own data centers, and the green cloud message is indeed built around a kernel of truth. Many businesses using a single hyperscale data center are going to generate less carbon per compute or storage than all those businesses running their smaller, less efficient data centers.
However, the efficiency of cloud data centers must be balanced against the fact that the huge growth in demand for cloud services, especially since the beginning of 2020, has pushed up the carbon emissions generated by the electricity needed to run and cool data centers. That’s before we even get to the consumption of water needed for cooling, or the exposure to all the minerals and materials needed to create them. The fact that the cloud now produces more carbon than aviation should be a wake-up call to anyone who thinks cloud equals clean.
Why is it so hard to get cloud waste under control?
Part of the problem facing both cloud providers and their customers is that the cloud has been marketed as a more flexible alternative to customer-owned infrastructure from the beginning. The dream was infinite elasticity – to be able to scale up or down based on demand. Certainly, most businesses have found that expansion is quite simple. But dial a number? Well, it involves overcoming many contractual, financial, psychological and organizational barriers.
Most readers will be familiar with the commercial barriers to visibility – and the potential reduction in cloud infrastructure. Complex, ever-changing pricing models, bills consisting of thousands of line items, and fluctuating data output fees appear to be deliberately preventing businesses from controlling large infrastructure costs and reducing their carbon footprint.
It’s easy to single out commercial barriers to constrain cloud spending. It is more difficult to identify those that are more related to the person. Asim Razzaq, founder and CEO of Yotascale, attributes these barriers to conflicting priorities and a lack of information available to developers, platform engineers and anyone building cloud infrastructure. Razzak points out that it’s very difficult to understand cloud infrastructure decisions outside the context of the enterprise in which those decisions are made.
“Some people own the programs and the products, the services, and they understand the features, down to performance, cost, security, reliability, etc. An engineer doesn’t have time to figure out what all these positions they can choose from are going to be and will make decisions based on what they know when building the application. But this application can behave completely differently in production. You just don’t know how it’s going to behave and perform when it starts serving different workloads.”
Razzaq also points out that cloud provisioning decisions are also often made without knowledge of parallel infrastructure decisions.
“There is also Shadow IT. The platform development team doesn’t even know that people are providing other infrastructure. Organizations have the agility, but the people who provide the infrastructure don’t necessarily have the information or education needed to make the most sustainable or cost-effective decisions.”
Reducing waste for a more sustainable cloud infrastructure
What can businesses do to manage cloud waste and make more efficient and sustainable decisions?
It sounds obvious, but it should be emphasized once again that the awareness of the problem and the desire to solve it must come from the top. Employees who inadvertently create cloud waste may not be motivated to solve the problem if it conflicts with other goals—those set by those in leadership positions.
This commitment should extend to training employees to realize that, as Razzaq argues, cloud efficiency is not only about economics, but also about sustainability. These are different sides of the same coin. The more efficient the infrastructure, the less impact it will have on the environment. This is important because an enterprise may know that they are spending thousands of dollars a month, but when the relevant departments know that it will cost them many hours to identify underutilized infrastructure, the problem will drag on.
Razzaq also questions the assumption that the public cloud is sustainable by definition.
“The cloud is the modern smokestack,” he says. “The staff to server ratio used to be one to one. Now it could be one to 10, 200 or 1,000.”
While the big cloud beasts are certainly looking to make their data centers more resilient, regular readers of our Eco warriors series of articles comparing cloud providers know that there are significant differences between providers in terms of the resilience of their clouds, as well as between the images and narratives typically present in ESG reports and the hard data typically found in appendices.
Cloud customers must also use the sustainability tools that are increasingly provided to them as part of the services they subscribe to. Microsoft offers a sustainability calculator, AWS offers a carbon footprint tool, and Google recently announced a number of new sustainability measures that allow customers to measure their carbon footprint not only in GCP, but also in Google Cloud Workspace. Customers can also limit cloud resources to Google’s lowest-carbon locations.
None of these tools are likely to provide a completely accurate measurement of a cloud’s carbon footprint, especially cloud-related indirect emissions, but they are a start—an ecological baseline. They enable cloud customers to reduce macro wastage of cloud resources. The next step will be to use dedicated AI-driven products to identify micro-wastes in shared infrastructure that have such an impact on both the carbon footprint and bottom line costs. This enables those who build, deploy and manage cloud applications to make more sustainable decisions and reduce their carbon footprint.