Cloud infrastructure may be out of sight and out of mind for most of the businesses that depend on it. But that doesn't mean cloud data centers aren't eating up hefty amounts of energy — so much that, globally, data centers account for about 1% of total energy usage.
That's part of the reason why "green" cloud computing has become a thing. Keep reading for an overview of what green cloud computing means, who can benefit from it, and how to put it into practice.
What Is Green Cloud Computing?
Green cloud computing is a cloud computing strategy that aims to minimize the environmental impact of cloud-based infrastructures and applications.
Green cloud computing has two main goals. The first is to reduce the overall energy consumption of cloud data centers and the workloads that run in them. The second is to source energy in clean and sustainable ways wherever possible, so that the energy that clouds do consume leaves a smaller carbon footprint.
How Does Green Cloud Computing Work?
There are a variety of ways to implement green cloud computing. Common strategies include:
- Choosing the right cloud services: Depending on which workloads you run, some cloud services might lead to more energy efficiency than others. For instance, serverless computing may result in more energy efficiency, especially for compute-intensive workloads, because it minimizes the time that host environments idly sit consuming resources while not actually serving user requests.
- Planning a green cloud architecture: In green cloud computing, goals such as performance and availability should be balanced with energy goals. You might, for instance, choose a cloud disaster recovery strategy that reduces the amount of resources you keep on standby. Doing so is likely to result in longer recovery times, but it will reduce your cloud energy consumption rates.
- Knowing when, and when not, to use the cloud: Although modern cloud data centers are considerably more energy-efficient than most on-premises infrastructure, it may still make environmental sense in some cases to keep workloads on-premises. For example, if you've already acquired a lot of servers that would become e-waste when you migrate to the cloud, continuing to use those servers may be the more sustainable thing to do.
- Using carbon offsets: If you can't plan a cloud strategy that is inherently eco-friendly, you can at least purchase carbon offsets to bring your net carbon footprint closer to zero. (We'll discuss the role of carbon offsets — which are something of a controversial topic — in green cloud computing a bit more below.)
Is Cloud Infrastructure 'Green'?
Today, all of the major public cloud providers have made substantial commitments to environmental sustainability. So, for that matter, have many colocation companies, which sell data center space (and sometimes server infrastructure) that businesses can use to build private or hybrid clouds.
That doesn't mean, however, that simply choosing to run workloads in a cloud or data center that promises to be "green" or "carbon-neutral" amounts to green cloud computing. It's important to look closely at how, exactly, your provider enacts its sustainability promise.
Most cloud and data center companies use a combination of two methods in pursuit of green cloud computing initiatives:
- Sustainable energy sourcing: Companies use renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, to avoid the emissions that result from "dirty" energy.
- Carbon offsets: They purchase carbon offsets to make up for the fossil fuels that their data centers consume.
Historically, most cloud and colocation companies have leaned more heavily on carbon offsets than on sustainable energy sourcing. The Big Three clouds — Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and AWS — have all pledged to source their energy solely from "clean" sources by the end of this decade, but in the meantime, their ability to claim carbon neutrality hinges significantly on their ability to purchase carbon offsets.
If you believe — as some folks do — that carbon offsets are problematic in many ways, you may want to look for a cloud or data center provider whose formula for achieving green infrastructure skews more toward clean energy sourcing than offset purchases.
It's worth noting, too, that nuclear energy counts among energy sources that most cloud providers categorize as "clean" or "renewable" — although they typically don't talk about that as much as they highlight their investments in solar and wind farms. In this sense, your opinion of what counts as a "green" cloud may depend on how green you consider nuclear energy production to be.
Devising a green cloud computing strategy requires designing cloud workloads and architectures to be environmentally friendly, as well as choosing cloud or data center providers with genuine commitments to sustainability. That's no simple feat, but it will become increasingly important for businesses that want to keep their clouds sustainable even as their workloads grow in scale.