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The Green Cloud: How Climate-Friendly Is Your Cloud Provider?

In 2018, ex-AWS employee Paul Johnston and I jointly published a report on the state of energy use in the cloud. How could we as consumers make ethical and future-proof choices about hosting?

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This is not an academic issue. Data centres may not be at the front of our minds in the war on climate change, but just because we don’t think about them doesn’t mean they aren’t fundamental.

Data centres play a major role in humanity’s future. As Microsoft President Brad Smith points out, they will be: ‘among the largest users of electrical power on the planet’. We have reached the point that data centres are outstripping the aviation industry as carbon producers and within five years they may be on a par with all of transport.

That’s crazy! Isn’t tech supposed to be clean?

It is. But inadvertently, tech is doing harm—even when it has the money, the means, and the ability to avoid it. This, in our view, is unethical.

The aviation industry gets a lot of bad press but at least it’s trying hard to reduce carbon emissions. Only carbon-based jet fuel has the energy density to support mass aviation at the moment (although people are working on it). In tech, we don’t have that excuse. We need electricity to run servers, not jet fuel, and electricity has a lot of generation options.

A Progress Report

In our 2018 report, we demanded 100% renewable server hosting by 2024. In the 18 months since then we’ve seen solid progress from the cloud vendors:

  • Google Cloud has been 100% offset for a while and is working towards the better goal of real-time matching. You can host there and feel reasonably good about it.
  • This month, Microsoft set themselves the ambitious (and very pleasing) goal of being carbon negative by 2030 stating ‘While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so’. They were already 100% offset by renewables on their server hosting for Azure and we applaud this new stance.
  • Amazon’s AWS lags behind the others and is the least transparent of the major cloud vendors. Although they have recently promised their servers will be 100% renewably-offset by 2030 and 80% offset by 2024, they are currently 50% hydrocarbon-powered. While we applaud their commitment to improve, some of their AWS regions are particularly dirty right now and, unfortunately, one of their worst offenders may be the default: US East. Fortunately, it is possible to choose hosting more wisely. AWS does have four 100% offset regions (Dublin, Frankfurt, Oregon, Canada) and we strongly urge AWS customers to use these regions by preference.

If you run your own data centres or use a co-lo facility, you still have some control — you can buy or request that the electricity for the facility comes from a green provider who will guarantee it is offset.

Having said this, the age of the hyperscale cloud provider is here. 53% of all servers are projected as being located in hyperscale cloud data centres by 2021. The decisions of AWS, Google, and Microsoft are therefore of paramount importance.

This is not only about being good.

The world is changing.

Renewable power is now often cheaper than the dirty, hydrocarbon-based alternatives and that gap is likely to widen as solar and wind become commoditised.

Personally, I suspect more legislation will come in against hydrocarbon fuels, and public protests against oil and gas will continue to rise. Securing alternative sources of power is a risk-management exercise as much as an ethical one.

Below, Container Solutions, Paul, and I have produced a set of green guidelines to help you make climate-change compatible choices for your cloud hosting.

Sustainable Cloud Hosting Guidelines

Our recommendations are:

  • Enterprises choose 100% sustainable locations for new Cloud instances (e.g. on Azure, Google Cloud or the sustainable AWS regions of Dublin, Frankfurt, Oregon or Canada) and transition existing VMs there as soon as possible.
  • Enterprises inform their data-centre providers that they require secure, sustainably-powered compute resources and insist on a delivery commitment.

The State of the Cloud 

Google

2018 rating: B+

2020 rating: A-

Sustainable servers?: 100% with offsets today, with commitment to ‘real time matching’ (i.e. no carbon release)

Azure

2018 rating: B

2020 rating: A-

Sustainable servers?: 100% with offsets and energy certificates today, with commitment to be carbon negative by 2030

AWS

2018 rating: C

2020 rating: C-

Sustainable servers?: 100% with offsets in four public regions today, elsewhere unknown with estimates in the less than 30-50% range. New commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030 and carbon zero (no carbon release) by 2040. The rating here would be higher but for the continuing lack of transparency on energy usage.

Alibaba

2018 rating: D-

2020 rating: D-

Sustainable servers?: Unknown but China a major market, and not known what energy is purchased.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

 

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