Cloud computing and the journey to net zero
Blog posted by: Chris Hazell, Programme Manager – Cloud, Tech and Innovation at techUK. Part of techUK's Climate Action at COP28 Campaign Week 2023.
Cloud computing and the journey to net zero
At a time when our commitment to mitigate the impact of climate change has never been more urgent, a sustainable approach to technology should be at the heart of any digital transformation strategy. With attention at COP 28 focused on a “Global Stocktake”, this is a good time to think carefully about the digital infrastructure that underpins global growth.
Cloud has become a key driver of the UK’s digital economy, giving businesses of all sizes and sectors access to computing resources that are flexible and scalable on-demand. Applications, platforms, data storage and infrastructure can all be delivered as a service, allowing for more flexible and efficient use of resources and potentially a reduction in energy use, water consumption and carbon footprint relative to legacy infrastructure.
This makes it an appealing option for many organisations, with a recent Gartner CEO survey reporting that 70% of business leaders focusing on sustainability initiatives will look to public cloud to achieve these outcomes by 2026. The good news is that many cloud providers recognise this demand and are investing in renewable energy, hardware recycling and more efficient energy and water use in data centres.
The role of cloud in a green transition
By moving to cloud, businesses can often cut their energy consumption and carbon footprint relative to older legacy infrastructure. Cloud has some inherent advantages over traditional CapEx-based procurement, including more efficient use of hardware through virtualisation and multi-tenancy, the flexibility to dynamically match provisioning of services to business needs, and the ability of customers to benefit from ongoing investments made by cloud providers without the need for their own capital investment.
According to a report by Accenture, cloud utilisation can reduce carbon emissions by 35-45% compared to legacy IT. This is supported by recent research into the energy efficiency of European data centres that suggests the higher utilisation rates and more frequently updated technology of cloud infrastructure could reduce energy usage of running business applications by nearly 80% when compared with on-premises enterprise data centres. Data from Google on electricity savings resulting from a move to cloud paints a similar picture.
However, while cloud has huge potential advantages for carbon savings, achieving the best possible environmental outcomes requires both providers and users of cloud services to take shared responsibility for sustainability and regularly review best practice at every level.
For cloud providers, this means continued investment in energy and resource efficiency and giving customers access to more granular and specific data about the environmental impact of their cloud consumption, including access to Scope 3 data wherever possible.
To achieve the best outcomes for the planet, user behaviour is key.
While cloud providers have made huge investments in sustainable infrastructure, moving to cloud will not automatically guarantee the maximum possible reduction in an organisation’s carbon footprint and computing as-a-service does not necessarily equate to sustainability as-a-service. In other words, a “lift and shift” migration followed by a “file and forget” approach to data management can seriously undermine the sustainability benefits of cloud computing.
To maximise the green credentials of cloud, and thereby minimise the impact of our digital infrastructure on the journey to net zero, users of cloud services must recognise that while cloud providers focus on ensuring the sustainability of the cloud, there are important steps they can take to operate more sustainably in the cloud.
A truly sustainable version of cloud computing means fostering a “GreenOps” culture by adapting FinOps practices to track and report carbon metrics, revising data strategies to minimise the storage of unused “dark data” in the cloud, and harnessing green software principles and cloud-native technologies to develop and deploy more energy-efficient applications.
As an industry, we should take a holistic view of cloud sustainability, considering what we can do as individuals, as organisations, and as a society to consume cloud as efficiently as possible. This approach will be essential as demand for cloud services grows further across the global economy, through more widespread digital transformation and the adoption of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI).
Ultimately, as consumer demand and increasing pressure from governments and investors drives businesses across the economy to look for more climate-friendly technologies, cloud computing can play a key role in delivering a more sustainable future.
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