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Architect your way to a greener cloud

It's been a big few months in the race to net zero with both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and UK Government publishing a slew of new reports, strategies and policies. Against that backdrop, and with many more organisations seeking to digitalise their operations, we’re examining the benefits of cloud-based solutions – and plotting the path to a successful digital transformation.

With data centres responsible for 2% of global GHG emissions, according to Climate Neutral Group1 , cloud can play a significant role in the transition to a lower emission alternative. Many initiatives have already been undertaken by Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) to reduce their direct and value chain Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and provide their customers with sustainable cloud options.

One core initiative is the transition towards renewable or carbon-free energy sources. While CSPs may report that their operations are powered by 100% renewables, it’s important to understand that this figure is often achieved through Renewable Energy Credits and Carbon Offsets, meaning that there is still a carbon impact to consider, and that energy reduction is key when it comes to operating in the Cloud. So, what can users of the cloud do to consume cloud in a responsible way?

Setting up for sustainable cloud consumption

Architects must consider the environmental impact of decisions throughout each stage of the cloud journey. Establishing organisation-wide sustainable Cloud architecture guidelines with buy-in from all IT and business stakeholders puts sustainability at the core of Cloud architecture. To support this, we highlight four key principles organisations should include within theirCloud Architecture Checklist:

1. Disaster Recovery Planning

There should be more focus on ‘rightsizing’ the retention policies of applications as well as the need to provide multi availability zone backup. In 2020 it was estimated by Tech Republic that 6.4 million tons of CO2 polluted the atmosphere due to information stored in Data centres that was never accessed or used – these files are known as ‘dark data’ . Architects should consider the chosen and default retention policies in the Cloud as well as whether backup is needed or if One-Zone infrequent access could be sufficient based on the importance of data.

2. Hot and Cold Storage

Taking the time to prioritise data into hot and cold storage can both improve cost efficiencies and reduce environmental impact. Cold storage is typically used for compliance and HR data whilst hot storage is used for operational data sets that requires high-performance functionality and speed. Tiered storage, such as Amazon’s S3 intelligent tiering, can be implemented to provide an automatic lifecycle policy that moves data objects to the most appropriate storage tier based on access frequency. According to a study by Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, Data transfer and storage can still account for 3-7KWh of energy costs per 100 GBs depending on factors such as the distance of the Cloud Region from the place it’s accessed.

Architects should consider the needs of their applications and tailor their storage performance based on this. The use of solid-state drives (SSDs) typically for transactional workloads, rather than hard-disk drives (HDDs), typically for streaming workloads, can immensely benefit sustainability. General SSDs and low power consumption SSDs consume 50% and 94% less power than HDDs respectively. When choosing to place data in storage types, architects can ensure a greener cloud by choosing the appropriate volume type.

3. Choice of Availability Zones

The location of workloads in the Cloud is a key strategic decision based on regulation, performance, cost and carbon footprint. The degree of access to Carbon Free Energy (CFE) varies greatly, for example Google Cloud’s London region uses 57% CFE whereas Finland utilises 91%. This difference is largely due to the national investment in Finland's green energy grid with Google announcing in 2020 that they have signed agreements to buy power from more that 50 renewable energy projects in the country. Hyperscalers like GCP, AWS and Microsoft Azure are heavily investing in renewable energy. Cloud Service Providers are pursuing new technology and investing in large scale solar and wind projects for data centres. When choosing where to place data in availability zones and regions, architects can ensure a greener cloud by assessing the credentials of each region.

4. Serverless Architecture

Serverless architecture can drastically improve server utilisation rate through dynamic utilisation of compute resources and consumption-based services. Research by the National Resources Defence council show that on premise utilisation is 15% on average while utilisation in the Cloud is 65%.Beyond utilisation, further benefits of serverless architecture are the rapid time-to-market and lower infrastructure and operation costs compared to using non-serverless solutions. Furthermore, Serverless Architecture, particularly event-based processing, reduces the technological footprint and provides a more sustainable option.

An example of Serverless Architecture being used to optimising environmental impact is Microsoft’s that put sustainable software engineering principles at the core of transformation. Their form of dynamic utilisation took place in adopting a push data model to reduce unnecessary Application Programming interface (API) calls when no data was changed. Once the function apps were adopted in the data pipeline, Azure managed to deprecate their legacy Webjobs footprint. The architectural refactoring reduced their carbon consumption tenfold as they no longer spent wasteful cycles doing no-ops or refreshing data with the same dataset.

What role can you play?

Cloud Sustainability exists as a shared responsibility model between the Cloud Service Provider and those who provision and consume cloud resources, where we consider sustainability of the cloud and sustainability in the cloud.

Ensuring the sustainable operation of the cloud falls on the Cloud Service provider, this is impacted by how they plan, build, and operate their data centres. More sustainable construction practices or access to renewable or carbon free energy are methods that we see in use today to help to reduce these impacts.

Sustainability in the cloud is where we need to acknowledge this shared model, and is an area where we can answer the calls of the IPCC and UK Climate Change Committee for greater collaboration to accelerate our decarbonisation efforts to meet our 2050 goals.

It's up to us, the service consumer, and quite often the architecture community, to ensure that the use of the Cloud-based tools and solutions, as explored throughout this blog, are used in a sustainable and responsible way.

Collectively we have the technology, skills and expertise to deliver digital transformations which can accelerate businesses and industries in the race to net zero – but it is only by teaming up that we can optimise our efforts and speed up our collective net zero transitions.