The environmental impact of cloud computing – Overview of leading providers’ strategies

Source: Scaleway blog

Facts

In a recent report, earth.org experts observed that “the environmental footprint of the online world is constantly expanding as its energy consumption rises to meet demand, but there are benefits too, which must be set against the costs. Greenpeace estimates that by 2025, the technology sector could consume 20% of the world’s total electricity; this increase from 7% currently is attributed to the expansion of cloud computing and the further development of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, which require a great deal of computing power.”. 

Any tech enthusiast will praise the benefits of cloud computing and its endless capabilities, this comes however at a cost, not only monetary but also environmental. In an Accenture study : ”Migrations to the public cloud can reduce CO2 emissions by 59 million tons per year which equates to taking 22 million cars off the road.” The main issue identified regarding cloud computing is the large amounts of electricity that are required to power the servers and keep their temperature under control/.

Let’s dig into this topic and see how tech giants are addressing the concerns.

Measures taken by major providers

Alibaba Cloud:

Back in 2015, Alibaba Cloud built the first green data center in China to use water-cooling technology at Qiandao Lake, near Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province where the company is headquartered.

Even though there is limited public information available on their strategy, Alibaba Group has declared its long-term commitment to sustainable development and transformation. This includes the issuing of a US$1 billion sustainability bond over a 20-year period that will fund projects across key sectors, such as green buildings, energy efficiency, renewable energy and the circular economy. Initially issued this February, the move marks the first time an internet company in Asia has issued such a bond towards sustainability.

“Achieving carbon neutrality requires innovative technology to sustainably transform the way we work, live and collaborate. Alibaba Group is fully committed to this direction, and we are working on our own technological roadmap for a more sustainable society,” said Cheng Li, chief technology officer at Alibaba Group.

“At the same time, we believe that a low-carbon future is a collective effort, which is why we are also cooperating with industry partners and the wider community to implement a wide range of green initiatives,” Cheng added.

AWS:

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is committed to running our business in the most environmentally friendly way possible and achieving 100% renewable energy usage for its global infrastructure.

“Amazon continues to scale up its investments in renewable energy as part of its effort to meet The Climate Pledge, our commitment to be net-zero carbon by 2040,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO. “With these nine new wind and solar projects, we have announced 206 renewable wind and solar projects worldwide, and we are now the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in Europe and globally. Many parts of our business are already operating on renewable energy, and we expect to power all of Amazon with renewable energy by 2025—five years ahead of our original target of 2030.”

AWS has multiple initiatives to improve its water use efficiency and reduce the use of potable (drinking) water for cooling data centers. AWS develops its water use strategy by evaluating climate patterns for each AWS Region, local water management and availability, and the opportunity to conserve drinking water sources. Taking a holistic approach, they assess both the water and energy usage of each potential cooling solution to select the most efficient method and when possible, AWS incorporates direct evaporative technology for cooling its data centers, significantly reducing energy and water consumption. During cooler months, outside air is directly supplied to the data center without using any water. During the hottest months of the year, outside air is cooled through an evaporative process using water before being pushed into the server rooms, and they have optimized their cooling systems to use minimal water.

AWS’s expansive infrastructure is 3.6 times more energy efficient compared to median US enterprise data centers, according to one of their statements,, largely due to efficient servers and high capacity utilization rates.10 The company’s water-cooled facilities actively measure water efficiency and select conservation options in the context of regional climate patterns and local resources

Azure:

Main commitments:

  • 100% renewable energy by 2025
  • Water positive by 2030: replenish more water than we consume by 2030
  • Zero-waste certification by 2030
  • Net-zero deforestation from new construction

“At Azure, we see sustainability and humanity’s response to climate change as one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime. We believe it’s not too late to plan for a cleaner, greener future. We’ve committed to put sustainable technologies at the heart of our innovation—to make sure we are adapting and growing along with the planet with the lowest environmental impact.”

Microsoft, carbon neutral since 2012, has committed to shifting its data centers to 100% supply of renewable energy by 2025 through power purchase agreements (PPAs). The company recently launched its ambition to be carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to remove all carbon emitted by the company since 1975.12Microsoft Azure’s customers can access a carbon calculator that tracks emissions associated with their own workload on the cloud.

Google Cloud:

In 2007, Google became carbon neutral and in 2017, they became the first company of their size to match 100% of their global, annual electricity consumption with renewable energy. Today, they are the largest annual corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world with the aim to decarbonize their electricity supply completely and operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy, everywhere, by 2030.

Google currently utilizes a carbon-intelligent computing platform that shifts timing of non-urgent data center workloads to when low-carbon sources of energy are most plentiful. The company has also been matching 100% of its annual energy usage with renewables since 2017.8 The company has a bold commitment to operate its data centers carbon-free 24/7 by 2030, rather than rely on annual direct energy matches. In 2020, Google became the first company to achieve a zero lifetime net carbon footprint, meaning the company has eliminated its entire legacy operational carbon emissions.

OVH:

OVH has focused on reducing energy consumption in their data centers since 2003 with the introduction of a proprietary water-cooling system. OVH uses ongoing R&D to explore new and innovative approaches to reduce the consumption of electricity needed to run data centers. Currently 98% of their sites are using watercooling.

“When we developed this cooling technology in 2003, it was in direct opposition to current practices. Water cooling consists of putting liquid inside a server to cool the processors. The liquid is carried by heat exchangers positioned on the processors and other components that emit a lot of heat. 70% of the heat generated by a server is captured by the liquid, which has a much higher heat transfer capacity than air. This method is not only good for the environment, but also reduces costs.”

Since 2010, new OVH data centers have been free of the need for air conditioning. The 30% air cooling + 70% water cooling = 0% air conditioning solution is deployed in new OVH-built data centers.

OVH sustainability efforts can be summarized with the following:

  • Proprietary water-cooling technology for all OVH-built servers
  • Reduction of air conditioning use in data centers
  • Value of cost savings passed on to the customers

Scaleway:

Scaleway sets itself an ambitious PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) objective of <1.15 for all new data centers built after 2018, and 1.3 for all previously constructed data centers. This is achieved through continued improvement to cooling systems (free cooling, natural cooling using outside air) and the modernization of primary infrastructure through the use of high energy efficiency equipment. Scaleway claims that their current PUE goals range from 1.15 to 1.40, and represent an average incremental gain in efficiency of 30-40% whereas the industry-wide weighted average PUE remains at 1.58.

“As a global corporate citizen, we assess our impact, set ambitious goals and communicate transparently about the results. We have been designing our business to continuously thrive and prosper in a more sustainable way, while shaping the cloud sector and positively contributing to the significant social, economic and environmental challenges of our generation.”  Yann Lechelle, CEO Scaleway

Cloud vs on premise

451 Research estimates, in a 2019 study, that “by the server efficiency metric, AWS is over 2.5 times more energy efficient than the median of surveyed US enterprises, with a rating above 20. This difference is the result of much higher utilization of servers and an infrastructure that is heavily weighted toward more recent server technology generations that are inherently more energy efficient. In addition, AWS also designs its own servers for maximum efficiency, while enterprises might give more consideration to other features such as hardware redundancy and expandability.When factoring in data center facility efficiency, AWS is over 3.6 times more energy efficient (in the efficiency-rating range of 34-37) in its data center operations than the median of surveyed enterprises. This additional advantage is due to its more efficient data centers with much stronger PUEs than typical on-premises enterprise data centers, a result of free cooling methods and a leaner electrical infrastructure that introduces lower losses to power distribution.When we factor in grid carbon intensity and renewable energy to calculate relative carbon efficiency, AWS’s advantage extends even more, to over 8.5. This means that the carbon footprint for the same server performance on the AWS cloud is 88% lower than the median of surveyed enterprises.”

Source: 451 Research

Moving from many on-premises servers to fewer large datacenters presents the opportunity to reduce overall IT consumption of energy and related carbon emissions. With this in mind, Microsoft commissioned a study to compare the energy consumption and carbon emissions of four applications in the Microsoft Cloud with their on-premises equivalents. 

The results show that the Microsoft Cloud is between 22 and 93% more energy efficient than traditional enterprise data centers, depending on the specific comparison being made. When taking into account the renewable energy purchases,the Microsoft Cloud is between 72 and 98% more carbon efficient. These savings are attributable to four key features of the Microsoft Cloud: IT operational efficiency, IT equipment efficiency, data center infrastructure efficiency, and renewable electricity.

Source: The Carbon Benefits of Cloud Computing: a Study of the Microsoft cloud

Key drivers of environmental impact reduction

From the decision taken by the key providers you can now start understanding the key drivers when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of cloud computing. In addition to that, part of the results will be achieved by pushing the right habits to the cloud users. It’s now also up to the cloud architects, data scientists, software engineers etc. to start applying the following principles:

  • Dynamic provisioning to reduce over-allocation of resources
  • Multi-tenancy to share applications between multiple players
  • Optimize server infrastructure utilization
  • Keep in mind that electrical efficiency is a key priority

Source: Accenture “The Green behind the cloud”

In the end, the final indicator will remain the consumption and its cost. Compared to a standard company one of the main bills to pay each month a cloud provider has is the electrical one. Every percent of electrical consumption optimized represents thousands of dollars per month and per datacenter. 

We would now love to hear your opinion on the environmental impact of cloud computing. 

Would you like to have a “green” indication of the providers in Holori’s cloud providers comparator

Don’t hesitate to share with us your vision and let us know if the environmental impact is guiding your cloud provider choice.

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get updates and learn from the best

More To Explore