Is the Cloud actually greener?

This week, I returned from an amazing family adventure holiday in Morocco, where the country’s wonderful culture and fascinating history made it (I hope!) an unforgettable experience for my kids. However, recent droughts there have had severe consequences on the country’s agriculture, economy, and water resources. Reduction in rainfall over the past two years has impacted crops, increased food prices, and water scarcity, affecting millions of people and raising concerns about long-term sustainability.

During one of many hours on the minibus, travelling between regions, my family asked me about the cloud and what impact it has on the environment. This has obviously been a massive topic over the past few years, prompting the hyperscalers to take a very public stance on the matter, for example, the re:Invent 2021 sustainability announcement by AWS.

We all know that cloud computing has become an essential part of modern life, changing the way we work, play, and communicate arguably faster than any other time in history! I would suggest that there are a huge number of sustainability benefits to adopting the cloud, but that doesn’t mean it’s environmental impact is zero. As with all things, we should be looking at the pros, cons and mitigations.

Just some of the Pros

The cloud allows businesses to reduce energy consumption and hardware waste significantly. By using shared cloud resources, organisations can get rid of their low-utilisation, on-premises hardware footprint, unused redundant kit for HA and DR, etc, all of which requires electricity, cooling, shipping, maintenance, etc. Cloud providers typically use state-of-the-art, energy-efficient data centres with huge economies of scale to minimise the overall carbon footprint.

Speaking of which – economies of scale! Hyperscalers benefit from massive economies of scale, making it more efficient for them to build, manage and maintain data centres. They have the budgets to invest in advanced technologies and energy-efficient infrastructure, leading to a lower environmental impact compared to small-scale, on-premises solutions (of even traditional colo).

On-demand scalability in the cloud allows organisations to optimise resource utilisation and remove the need for over-provisioning of hardware for peak demand or HA/DR. This not only reduces waste, ensuring only necessary compute resources are used, but reduces the TCO and frees up budget to be used elsewhere!

Something perhaps overlooked at times is that the cloud increasingly enables remote working, thereby providing better work/life balance for people and reducing the environmental impact of commuting. Greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles have a massive impact, which (especially in temperate countries) can be mitigated by more work from home. Furthermore, with the ubiquity of 4G and 5G mobile communications, this provides access to compute resources from remote locations where they would not have otherwise been available. This will likely increase utilisation and impact, but will help people all over the world benefit their lives and will likely lead to further innovation that will benefit the environment.

Lastly, as bonkers as it is to even needing to remind people of this in 2023, cloud computing virtually forces users to adopt virtualisation, utilising resources far more efficiently than traditional full-fat tin. It’s mind boggling how many companies are still uncomfortable virtualising heavy workloads such as databases today, despite all of the classic concerns being mitigated.

Remote village in Moroccan mountains

A Few Risks

The largest risk, but possibly the one which may have its own mitigations, comes from increased adoption. The increasing popularity of cloud computing means that the demand for data centre resources is rising massively. As more businesses move their operations to the cloud, energy consumption of centralised, cloud data centres will continue to grow (whilst reducing that of local), but beyond that, the innovation of all those very clever humans who have found new ways to utilise this new technology is likely further driving up utilisation beyond our traditional baselines.

The location choice for data centres can have a significant impact on the environment. In regions where electricity is generated using fossil fuels, cloud computing indirectly contributes to higher greenhouse gas emissions, and cooling data centres in hot climates can be super energy-intensive. If data sovereignty is not an issue, then utilising compute regions close to natural energy / cooling can help to mitigate this.

Inefficient development practices and code bloat further add to the risk landscape. The availability of virtually unlimited resources in the cloud may inadvertently reduce the drive for developers to write efficient code. Promoting clean development practices and optimisation is essential to minimise energy consumption. We should be fostering a culture of efficiency and sustainability right from the early stages of developer education to ensure this issue doesn’t continue to creep into the cloud. The growing trend of of microservices architectures may actually help here, encouraging developers to think small and efficient modules, but that remains to be seen!

One of the fastest growing users of energy and hardware is Cryptocurrencies. The massive amounts of power used to not only generate new coins, but also manage transactions on the chain, are a significant concern. Dedicated crypto hardware, such as ASICs, can help reduce energy consumption and those specifically designed for cryptocurrency mining are more energy-efficient compared to general-purpose hardware like GPUs. I would hope that the miners will adopt these more, if only for their own benefits, if not for the environment!


So to respond to the question posed by the title of this post, I believe the answer is yes, but there are some key considerations to ensure it remains so.

To make cloud computing a truly sustainable solution, we need to advocate for the use of renewable energy sources by cloud providers and the drive for net-zero carbon emissions in our cloud platforms (not just through buy carbon credits, but through actual change). Harnessing solar, wind, and hydroelectric power can enable cloud providers to decrease their dependence on fossil fuels and shrink their carbon footprint, but this will always be region-specific and impacted by data sovereignty regulations.

As consumers of the cloud, we have a crucial role to play by opting for cloud service providers that prioritise eco-friendly practices as well as adopting those ourselves, from architecture to development, fostering a culture of well-architected sustainability in our own organisations.

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