Why cloud is not the only answer to the sustainability conundrum

cloud

As organisations confront a sea of troubles ranging from economic recession to geopolitical malaise,
they naturally tend to stick to their knitting and turn to partners for help in non-core challenges. A
winning platform for our times here has been the cloud, as companies switch to online services to
accelerate deployment, handle spikes in demand and react quickly to market opportunities and
challenges. And now, the cloud also has a big part to play in managing energy consumption costs and
the related issue of sustainability.

IT’s relationship with energy has been a phenomenon that, if not quite a sleeper, has crept up over
the past 20 years. Climbing tariffs that may have gotten lost in the data centre operations grey area
between facilities management and IT have become unmissable recently. We know that data
centres account for about two per cent of global emissions, but this stark figure is about to inflate as
more organisations place their faith in technology and data. 

Time to move to the cloud

Just as burgeoning ICT complexity saw the rise of application outsourcing in the 1980s and 1990s,
many companies today are turning to cloud platforms for specialist nous. In addition, the pandemic
and lockdown saw a sharp rise in cloud adoption as firms scampered to find ways for remote users
to access IT systems, collaborate and stay in touch with the mothership. 

Those who were already convinced by the well-known attractions listed at the top of this article
quickly became persuaded that it was time to make a significant commitment. Most have stayed
onboard even with lockdowns in their rear-view mirrors. For now, getting better bang for your buck
in utility costs may be a relatively minor reason for migrating to the cloud. Still, handing the keys to a
cloud partner is becoming a sizeable factor in moving workloads from behind corporate firewalls.

“There is definitely a benefit in moving to cloud on a sustainability and energy consumption basis,”
Marcus Austin, PressArea IT analyst director, says. “The cloud suppliers can negotiate better rates on
power because of their size, plus a lot of the major cloud suppliers are increasingly moving to solar
and wind to provide their electricity, making them more sustainable and protecting the supplies
from external market forces like the conflict in Ukraine.”

According to the divisional CIO of a financial services company, his organisation was already ten or
20 per cent in the cloud pre-Covid, but the pandemic forced it to take a leap of faith. What
happened persuaded executives to move faster. He adds that reducing data centre costs and
sustainability were not at the top of their mind, but they have proven to be a welcome bonus.  

Scales of efficiency

James Murray, editor of the BusinessGreen website that covers corporate ecology and sustainability,
explains there is no shortage of action among cloud hyperscalers. “Google is arguably doing the most
visibly interesting stuff in this space with its work on getting to 24×7 renewables to run datacentres,”
he says. “Plus, there is an ongoing shift to colder climates in Iceland and the Nordics [for free
cooling], which is quite interesting.”

But Murray stresses the need for more details understanding of cloud providers’ actions. “There is a
definite need for corporates to be more granular and, if they are going to the cloud, make sure their
supplier has a credible net-zero strategy, which now has to mean clean power and ultra-efficiency,
not just offsets. Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and others are all really ambitious on this stuff now, but
many providers are still not doing enough and relying on coal power and diesel backup.”

Moving to a hybrid future

Some experts note that smaller co-location and clouds, together with ethical in-house data centres,
will represent the hybrid future. “There is a lot of truth in the argument that hyperscalers use a lot
greener energy than you would get anywhere else,” Jon Collins of analyst firm GigaOm says. “But if
you have a VM running in AWS, there is no clear carbon footprint measure for that, and if you
cannot measure, you cannot manage. Organisations are starting to look hard at financial operations
because the cloud is no longer seen as the cheap option.”

Smaller clouds, co-location and on-premises IT are not going away and may improve visibility into
energy consumption, Collins argues, and he has support. “I went to a conference and heard boasts
about a major cloud platform provider having one of the biggest power bills in the world,” reports an
executive at a leading data centre server maker. “If I were a CIO, I would not find that reassuring.
However, I think more companies will feel that they want to manage power and emissions closer to
home and to be able to demonstrate forensically their ability to monitor, manage and visualise
Scope I, 2 and 3 emissions.”

Yet others stress that the cloud is no sustainability panacea. “If you Google’ carbon footprint
calculators’, the sheer number of competing ones should put you off that concept forever,”
Professor James Woudhuysen, a frequent critic of green groupthink, says. “The corporate search for
ESG/decarbonisation is about cutting costs and HR rallying the troops more than it is about the
planet or even virtue signalling.”

Woudhuysen suggests that a hybrid approach may come into play in urban datacentres that benefit
from low latency, good availability of commercial properties, and the ability to transfer surplus heat
to domestic properties. 

The need for visibility

However, Steen Dalgas, senior cloud economist at datacentre hybrid cloud infrastructure pioneer
Nutanix, argues that visibility into datacentre complexity is needed. “The challenge facing the IT
industry over the next ten years is alarming,” Dalgas says. “Demand for digital services is growing at
ten per cent annually. Compounding this will see IT compute and storage consumption to meet this
demand double by 2030. But the UN tells us we need to reduce carbon by 45 per cent by 2030 to
avoid a climate catastrophe. In addition, energy is becoming the single biggest cost item in the IT
budget. So, what can beleaguered CIOs do about this? Radical change is needed, which means a
wholesale embracing and rapid cloud adoption.”

But Dalgas expects a spread of platforms to persist across the edge, private cloud and public cloud,
leaving multiple roles for market participants. “Software intelligence will optimise the consumption
of IT resources,” he predicts. “IT hardware vendors will need to optimise their hardware in terms of
energy efficiency and recycling. Datacentre and public cloud vendors will need to become experts in
sourcing renewable energy and improving the energy efficiency of data centres. And IT partners and
system integrators can support customers in recycling legacy IT environments and remodelling
business processes to leverage the cloud and lower IT resource consumption. 

“By offering software intelligence, which shows the cost and carbon data from your hybrid cloud at a
VM level, and by IT providing this data and charging the business units for their consumption, users
will understand that how they consume an app matters, and that can drive real positive change in
behaviour.” 

The future of energy consumption is ultimately unknowable, but we can be confident that more
companies will need to accrete more data and IT resources. By starting to build energy usage and
sustainability implications into metrics, IT leaders can at least begin to address an urgent and
growing issue.

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