Microsoft accelerates its digital transformation on the path to being carbon negative

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The plans of many companies have been shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept across the world, shutting down entire swathes of the developed work and changing working practices. For Microsoft they had the dual challenge of managing their own ambitions and targets whilst adapting to the growing demand for their services as remote working became a new way of life.

“Like everybody else there’s both the impact that we have for our own company that we’ve had to deal with, but we’ve also been a core supplier for teams and companies that we’ve had to go work with,” Jason Zander, executive vice president, Microsoft, says. An example of this response is Microsoft Teams that on a single day during the lockdown handled four billion meetings, with an average of 200 million daily active participants.

“The opportunity for us to have had a cloud, built a cloud and brought that together was really allowing a whole bunch of that productivity to kick in for everyone,” he adds. “It would be hard to imagine how that may have even worked three years ago.

“We have already prepositioned in over 60 regions around the world with hundreds of data centre, millions and millions of server nodes—they are already there. If you can imagine COVID, if you had to go back and do a procurement exercise and figure out a place to put the equipment, and the supply chains were actually shut down for a while because of COVID. That is why I say, even three to five years ago we as industries would have been pretty challenged to respond as quickly as we have.”

Searching for the carbon neutral goal

Like many other organisations within the digital infrastructure sector, Microsoft has demanding climate ambitions in its drive to become carbon negative. “We are saying we will be carbon negative by 2030,” Zander says. “By 2025 we are going to shift to 100 per cent renewable energy. We are starting off by saying let us not talk about what everybody else should do, let’s talk about what we’re going to do.

“Our goal is to remove our historic emissions by 2050. If you then extrapolate out over the next 30 years, how do we go back even to the history of Microsoft and say we have emitted ‘this much’ carbon? By 2050 we will have essentially removed that.

“We are investing in a $1 billion fund over the next four years for carbon removal technology. We also are announcing a Microsoft sustainability calculator for cloud customers. Basically, you can help get transparency into your Scope 1,2, and 3 carbon emissions to get control. You can think of us as we want to hit this goal, we want to do it ourselves, we want to figure out how we build technology to help us do that and then we want to share that technology with others. And then all along the way we want to partner with energy companies so that we can all be partnering together on this energy transition.”

Partnering with fossil fuel operators

One possible conflict with this ambition is their strong partnerships with many oil and gas operators. “We have 150,000 employees worldwide,” Zander explains. “Our culture at Microsoft is we absolutely want our employees to be very open about their opinions and share them with us. We have an open culture that way, and we respect what our employees are saying. To me it is much more around a dialogue with our employees about what we are trying to do.

“From a corporate perspective we have made pledges around being carbon negative, but then also working with our energy partners. The way that we look at this is you are going to have continued your requirements and improvements in standards of living around the entire planet. One of the core, critical aspects to that is energy. The world needs more energy, not less. There are absolutely the existing systems that we have out there that we need to continue to improve, but they are also a core part of how things operate.

“What we want to do is have a very responsible programme where we’re doing things like figuring out how to go carbon negative and figuring out ways that we as a company can go carbon negative. At the same time, taking those same techniques and allowing others to do the same and then partnering with energy companies around energy transformation. We still want the investments in renewables. We want to figure out how to be more efficient at the last mile when we think about the grid. I generally find that when you get that comprehensive answer back to our employees, they understand what we are doing and are generally supportive.”

Looking to the smart grid for solutions

One driver to reduce emissions and manage the effects of climate change is being delivered by the smart electric grid, that is in turn driven by the industrial internet of things (IIoT). “Even in my home I think about the ability to monitor my own electrical usage and smart appliances,” Zander says. “Then more importantly, when I get off into the grid how much am I using? If I do have solar or alternative energy sources, how are those going back on the gird? How is it getting distributed? How are we being efficient? All of these things are going to be part of that solution. The internet of things we think is important.

“Coming up is a digital feedback loop where you get enough data that is coming through the system that you can actually start to be making smart decisions. Our expectation is we will have an entire connected environment. Now we start thinking about smart cities, smart factories, hospitals, campuses, etc. Imagine having all that level of data that is coming through and the ability to do smart work shedding or shaping of electrical usage, things where I can control brownout conditions and other things based on energy usage. There is also the opportunity to be doing smart sharing of systems where we can do very efficient usage systems—intelligent edge and edge deployments are a core part of that.”

The ever-present cybersecurity threats

As technology advances and digitisation becomes all pervasive there is one constant that needs to be mitigated against, the growing sophistication of security attacks. “We have to make sure that we always have a secure and robust environment,” Zander continues. “The sophistication level is always, always going to go up. In this world the big investment that we are making is around critical infrastructure. We want to make sure that all those devices that are out there are completely secure.

“We are investing about $5 billion in IoT all up, that includes the security aspects that we have got. We recently finished some acquisitions on some security technology that we are integrating in with our security systems for this. We spend about $1 billion of opex every year. We have 3,500 full time security employees. It must be a combination of watching what the attack vectors are to keep things safe.

“How do we keep all the actual equipment that people are using safe? If you think about 5G and additional connectivity, we are getting all this cool new technology that is there. You must figure out a way in which you are leveraging silicon, you are leveraging software and the best in security—and we are investing in all three.

The next frontiers of computing

When it comes to the future of computing, one thing that has Zander extremely excited is the prospects for quantum computing. “The way that I think about this, in computer science and electrical engineering we have spent decades trying to figure out how to emulate nature and do it in probably what is a very inefficient way,” he explains. “Your brain has two petabytes of storage and it runs on 40 watts of electricity. There is no way that I could ever replicate that today. But then you start thinking about how does nature operate, and can we harness that?

“The idea of being able to harness particle physics to do computing and be able to figure out things in minutes that would literally take centuries to pull off otherwise in classical computing is kind of mind-blowing. We are actually working with a lot of the energy companies on figuring out how could quantum inspired algorithms make them more efficient today. As we get to full scale quantum computing then they would run natively in hardware and would be able to do even more amazing things. That one has just the potential to really, really change the world.

“The meta point is problems that would take literally, a thousand years, you might be able to solve in ten seconds. We have proven how that kind of technology can work. The quantum-inspired algorithms therefore allow us to take those same kinds of techniques, but we can run them on the cloud today using some of the classic cloud computers that are there. Instead of taking a 1,000 years, maybe it is something that we can get done in ten days, but in the future ten seconds.”



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