Enterprising approaches to cutting carbon in the cloud

Sustainability matters in the cloud and customers are calling for more transparency, which is good news for companies that are ahead of the curve.
22 September 2022

Ground truth: carbon footprint transparency is driving more sustainable decision making in the IT sector. Image credit: Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP.

It’s everybody’s job to be a good steward of the planet. But it also helps to have experts on hand to make sure that the transition to more sustainable business practices runs as smoothly as possible. In the technology world, the digital carbon footprint of cloud services has come under scrutiny. And while users may feel that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is a job for data centers to fix, there’s plenty that developers and other IT staff can do to get ahead along the way.

Currently, emissions from the IT sector as a whole are responsible for around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions – a figure that puts the sector on par with the aviation industry. But the popularity of IT services and the march of digital transformation across a wide range of industries could push computing’s contributions much higher. Depending on the growth ramp, analysts estimate that emissions related to IT services could be anywhere between 7% and 15% of the worldwide total by 2040. And positive steps taken today have the potential to greatly influence those numbers for the better.

Digital carbon footprint transparency

A welcome trend in the tech world is the creation of the role of ‘environmental impact officer’ – a position that reinforces the rising importance of sustainability in the IT industry. Responsibilities for post holders include looking at how firms can quantitively reduce their impact on the environment of not just the services that they provide to customers, but also internal operations and employee behavior. Equipping organizations with such expertise will be good for the planet and for business (at least for firms that are quick to act).

“When the cloud was young, price was a dominant factor,” Leah Goldfarb, Environmental Impact Officer at Platform.sh, told TechHQ. “Today, we can also think about relocating work packages to greener regions.” Giving platform-as-a-service (PaaS) customers access to relevant environmental data sourced from electricity maps, combined with other supporting information, allows clients to make more informed choices. “We can be transparent with respect to the grid,” Goldfarb comments.

Data center providers deserve credit for the improvements that they’ve made in ramping up the efficiency of their operations. In the early days, facilities used almost as much energy to cool the racks of computers as they needed to run the calculations. But today, power usage effectiveness (PUE) numbers are much lower, with non-computing activities representing 10% or less of a data center’s energy consumption – an achievement that translates to PUE figures of 1.1 and below. Design improvements include finding more ways to reuse energy rather than simply waste it as heat. However, these innovations may be lost on customers if there’s no transparency provided right the way through to the admin portals that are being used day-to-day.

Board-level discussions

Again, there’s a compelling business proposition for making operational information available to clients. PaaS providers, such as Platform.sh, and others, know that environmental concerns are moving up their customers’ agenda. In April, Gartner wrote that sustainability has become a ‘mainstream concern’ for CEOs in 2022. The topic jumped into the top ten of strategic business priority areas (up from 13th in 2020) in the latest edition of the consultancy firm’s survey of 400 senior industry figures.

Giving customers a helping hand in managing their digital carbon footprint are services such as code profiling that can optimize how code runs in the cloud. Profilers identify bottlenecks in application performance and give recommendations on how developers can make their software run faster and consume fewer resources. But that’s not all. “We can also help clients to be more efficient through density,” adds Goldfarb. PaaS products can provide 8x higher density for production workloads, rising to 16x in a development environment, which translates to much more efficient use of cloud infrastructure.

Goldfarb points to a useful mnemonic, MODE, which summarizes the activities that are instrumental in helping clients switch up their environmental performance. The letters represent ‘measure’, ‘optimize’, ‘deploy (to greener regions)’, and ‘educate (through research). After more than two decades working in environmental science and policy, Goldfarb knows that effective communication is key and that any claims need to be supported with solid data.

Purchasing power

Providing clients with transparency on the environmental performance of services hosted in the cloud, means that customers are better equipped to engage in discussions on the topic of greenhouse gas emissions in IT. And giving users a choice of where to host their work packages allows them to shop based not just on cost, but on sustainability too. It’s often the case that IT services – together with great staff and bright ideas – underpin business success, but with legislative wheels turning there’s a green box that will also need to be ticked.

Also playing into decisions is the topic of energy security. Practically, data centers have long had backup power to bolster their services, but increasingly they are also big investors in renewable energy to sure up their ability to run 24/7. The competitive nature of the IT sector rewards innovation and we can expect that spirt to extend to providing greater environmental transparency to customers as sustainability exerts more influence in IT purchasing decisions.