Is 2022 the year of clean cloud?

As organisations look to lower their environmental impact, they’re choosing partners that put sustainability first. This is why clean cloud will be a key battlefield in the public cloud market this year.


Last year’s COP26 saw the world’s leaders come together and make new environmental pledges, but we all know much more is needed to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C.

Pressure is growing on businesses to step up and play their part, pushing environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals higher up agendas, with a particular focus on working towards net zero carbon emissions.

As the IT industry is a large contributor to carbon emissions – data centres and cloud computing account for roughly 3% of the world’s electricity consumption – the sector has a key role to play in fighting climate change.

More organisations are examining the environmental impact of their IT operations and looking for ways to lower carbon footprints. For many this has included moving from on prem to the cloud, which reduces the emissions from their own digital applications and infrastructure.

But how much of an environmental impact does this really have when the reality is you’re just moving that carbon footprint along the supply chain rather than removing it entirely?

This may be an oversimplification of the issue, as there are many environmental benefits to moving to the cloud, but it does illustrate why many organisations are putting more emphasis on a cloud service provider’s (CSP) sustainability credentials when choosing who to work with.

Google has reported that 75% of global IT leaders say sustainability is important when selecting a CSP, with 51% stating it as a major consideration and nearly a quarter (24%) saying it’s a must have. Similar views are shown in 451 Research's report on behalf of Schneider Electric, which found that 97% of customers are asking for contractual sustainability commitments from their providers.

Clean cloud – a key battleground in 2022

This is why CCS Insight forecasts that clean cloud – cloud operations underpinned by sustainable power consumption that delivers a net zero carbon footprint – will become a key battlefield in the public cloud market this year.

“It will be about how well cloud providers can demonstrate what they’re doing to improve the sustainability of their operations and how quick their progress is towards delivering a net zero carbon footprint,” says Bola Rotibi, Research Director, Software Development at CCS Insight.

CSPs have been shouting about their green credentials for quite some time, with many of Europe’s major cloud and data centre operators signing up to the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact to become climate neutral by 2030 in response to 2019’s European Green Deal.

Google is particularly vocal about the progress it’s made, claiming to be the first organisation of its size to operate with 100% renewable energy.

The hyperscaler aims to meet its Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact obligations by matching its energy consumption with carbon-free energy (CFE) every hour and in every region by 2030. Progress is being measured via a CFE percentage metric. Calculated every hour, this is shared with customers, and highlights what percentage of the energy consumed is carbon-free.

But Google’s not alone in its laser focus on improving efficiency, competitor AWS is another of the many CSPs working hard in this area.

“From the highly available infrastructure that powers our servers to techniques we use to cool our data centres, energy efficiency is a key goal of every part of our global infrastructure,” says Chris Wellise, AWS Director of Sustainability.

AWS has looked into interesting ways to reuse the heat generated in its data centres and this has included sharing it with local communities. For example, heat from its south Dublin data centre data centre is recycled to public sector, residential and commercial buildings.

“The system will initially heat 47,000 m2 of public sector buildings – an area three times the size of Dublin’s Croke Park stadium pitch – as well as 3,000m2 of commercial space and 135 affordable rental apartments. This is projected to save 1,500 tonnes of carbon per annum during the first phase of the Tallaght District Heating Scheme, the equivalent of a 60% reduction in carbon emission,” Wellise notes.

Carbon footprint monitoring services

These stories showcase the work CSPs are doing to ensure they improve their own sustainability, but another important area in the battle for clean cloud supremacy will be the services they offer clients to monitor the carbon footprint of their operations.

“The granularity of insight will be a key differentiator, as well as the services and recommendation features that help customers reduce their impact,” says Rotibi.

Looking again at two of the hyperscalers, AWS is scheduled to launch its Customer Carbon Footprint Tool early this year, which will include forecasts that show how its own sustainability investments will lower the carbon intensity of customers’ workloads.

Over at Google Cloud, the launch of its own Carbon Footprint tool enables customers to measure, track and report on the gross carbon emissions associated with their cloud usage.

“The aim is to provide businesses with metrics across projects, products and even regions so they can look to reduce their carbon footprint,” says Google Cloud’s UK and Ireland director, Thomas Remy.

Room for improvement

Rotibi says these efforts are a good start but CSPs could be doing a lot more to help clients understand what they can do to make their workloads more efficient.

“This may mean developing services around effective architectures, particularly those that drive more efficient performance metrics. They could also look to reduce the footprint of inefficient hardware and possibly look to share insights and metrics of those doing well.

“I think there needs to be a lot more sharing and exposing of more granular execution strategies,” she notes.

Max Schulze, executive chairman of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA) also raises a highly valid point.

“There’s a lot of software-level innovation, but infrastructure optimisation is lagging behind,” he says. “Moving IT infrastructure isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it leads to a concentration of infrastructure in one place which in theory should make it easier to optimise. But unfortunately, most of that optimisation isn’t happening on the physical side yet – for example removing diesel generators and refurbishing server hardware.”

There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement, but this doesn’t mean businesses should overlook the environmental benefits that come from choosing clean cloud providers.

As more organisations look to partner with a worthy provider, Rotibi recommends choosing an organisation that offers these three things.

“[Look for] a well-articulated strategy, tools that help you assess the carbon footprint of your workloads, and targeted services that will help you improve the architecture of your workloads.

“Ultimately though, (remember) actions speak louder than words.”