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Improving sustainability with the cloud

Aled Sage, VP of Engineering at Cloudsoft, looks at how moving to the cloud can help businesses reduce their carbon footprint

The race to meet the UK’s 2050 net zero deadline has catapulted sustainability up the corporate agenda. At a boardroom level, environmental sustainability is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ but a key business imperative that has just entered Gartner’s CEO’s Top 10 Strategic Priorities for the first time.

Simultaneously, the role of the CIO is evolving. As businesses continue to ramp up their digital transformation initiatives IT leaders are taking on greater responsibility in areas that would have been viewed as off-limits only a short time ago. According to a global study from Lenovo, nine in ten CIOs believe they are being asked to make business decisions that go beyond technology and into the realms of sustainability and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) reporting.

IT’s role in driving sustainability

UN research indicates that by 2030 the ICT industry is likely to account for 8% of total electricity demand – a 15-fold increase from 2010 – representing around 6% of annual global carbon emissions. This will put the ICT industry’s environmental impact on a par with that of the aviation industry. It’s no wonder, then, that 88% of IT leaders surveyed by Snow Software say their company needs to do a better job at IT sustainability.

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So, how can business leaders use the rapid march towards digital transformation to make a positive contribution towards a company’s ESG and sustainability targets?

Implemented effectively, digital transformation initiatives are not only able to boost a business’ bottomline but also streamline operations, improve ESG reporting and reduce the environmental impact of IT. Although the IT sector is currently highly energy intensive, it also has the potential to accelerate a company’s path to becoming more sustainable.

Public cloud sustainability

Migrating business-critical applications from traditional on-prem data centres to the public cloud is a key part of many digital transformation projects. Cloud providers like AWS and Microsoft Azure have taken huge steps to make their operations as efficient as possible, committing to use 100% renewable energy by 2025, implementing water conservation measures and maximising the use of server capacity. These commitments mean that when a business migrates from their on-prem data centres to the public cloud they can expect to shave 30% to 90% off their carbon emissions, according to Accenture.

In late 2021, AWS took this a step further by introducing a sixth pillar to its Well Architected Framework, embedding sustainability into best practice for application design and operations and making sure the environmental impact of each project decision is considered. This also allows existing applications to be assessed for sustainability improvements as part of reviews, alongside recommendations to make applications more secure, cost optimised or reliable.

Don’t just lift and shift

For those making their first move to the cloud or seeking to better manage their cloud portfolio, cloud migration is a must. However, not all cloud migration approaches are created equal and it is important not to view the cloud as just another data centre. Taken in isolation, cloud migration often fails to maximise the benefits of using the public cloud, particularly when applying a ‘lift and shift’ mentality.

Migrating workloads to the cloud can help organisations take advantage of cloud provider-led sustainability initiatives and hyperscale efficiencies, but there is also a responsibility on IT leaders to ensure that their applications are architected sustainably. Whilst Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) migration can drive a 65% energy reduction and an 84% carbon emission reduction, companies can stretch carbon emission reductions to 98% by configuring applications for the cloud.

So, what levers can organisations pull to make an application more sustainable?

Sustainable application design means optimising workloads and resource utilisation and minimising the total resources that have to be deployed for your workloads. Here are four key questions that companies must address to improve the sustainability of their cloud architecture and push towards better environmental sustainability:

  • Is your compute infrastructure correctly sized for your needs? Reducing idle resources and maximising utilisation is key here. If a host is running at 30% utilisation, does it really need all that power or could it be right-sized?
  • Are you autoscaling to meet demand or do you constantly consume enough resources to meet peak demand? In AWS, for example, you can scale up and down automatically in response to demand (in sub-seconds for serverless apps, in seconds for containers or in minutes for VMs).
  • Are you making use of spare capacity for large processing jobs with flexible start/end times? By using spare capacity rather than provisioning on-demand resources, you’re able to save up to 90% on cost and reduce the energy required to run your workload.
  • How efficient is your data storage? Tools such as Intelligent Tiering can automatically move infrequently accessed data to cold storage, and for archiving there are options like Amazon S3 Glacier or S3 Glacier Deep Archive.

There is a cost benefit to these practices as well, as lower consumption often results in lower spend, which is particularly pertinent in the current economic climate.

Ultimately, the way in which your application arrives in the cloud will have a bearing on how you answer these questions, as a fully cloud-native application will be more sustainably architected than one that was simply rehosted via a ‘lift and shift’ approach. On this basis, it’s important not to treat public cloud like another data centre but to think of any migration as a starting point for improving resource, cost and service utilisation.

With more than 81% of consumers viewing companies and brands that adopt more sustainable business practices in a more favourable light, according to SmartestEnergy, there has never been a better time to ensure that your digital transformation initiatives also help you to reach your ESG targets.

Aled Sage is VP Engineering at Cloudsoft Corporation, which specialises in applications, automation and the cloud. He holds a PhD (Computer Science) from the University of St Andrews and has over 20 years’ experience in developing and operating distributed applications. He also advises on cloud migrations and application modernisation and the challenges of successfully adopting cloud within the enterprise.

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Business Info Magazine & Site is Published by Kingswood Media 2022