Sustainable technology has become a hot topic in the tech world over the past few years. From the escalating environmental impact of heat and water-intensive activities like crypto mining and chip production to carbon taxes to sustainability becoming a pillar in the AWS Well-Architected Framework, there are plenty of issues to talk about, but conversations become marked quieter when you shift to discussing solutions.

Climate change is real, it’s here, and it’s only going to get worse unless we do something about it. Traditional practice—out of sight, out of mind—no longer suffices. And that includes the behind-the-scenes work many of us do on the modern networks we all depend on.

Let’s look at the topic from the average perspective—people that aren’t running hyper-scale data centers today—and explore cloud computing as one of the most compelling solutions to the problem.

Why does sustainable technology matter?

It’s tempting to dive down the rabbit hole on sustainability, environmental damage, and corporate responsibility, but chances are you’re already familiar. Sustainability is one of the big issues of our generation. Technology is both a big part of the problem and, potentially, a big part of the solution.

Information Communication Technology (ICT) accounts for roughly 1.9%-3.9% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally (and increasing) and faces several other sustainability challenges. At a high level, we can broadly group the tech’s environmental issues into these categories:

  • Emissions are related to increased power consumption. Digitization demands more tech. More tech means more power consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Clean, renewable energy sources are a critical long-term solution here, but more efficient energy consumption helps too.
  • Environmental issues stemming from mining. Mining raw materials like rare earth metals, lithium, and cobalt can release toxins and pollute the environment.
  • Emissions related to transportation. Shipping technology across the globe generates huge amounts of dangerous emissions.
  • Water usage. Network hubs generate tonnes of waste heat. Conventional technology pumps billions of water through systems designed to cool servers, with devastating consequences for the local environment and biome.
  • Pollution and resource consumption in manufacturing. Manufacturing plants create significant emissions and consume large amounts of resources like water.
  • E-waste. When tech products reach end-of-life, they often end up in landfills instead of being properly recycled. According to the United Nations (UN), we produce about 50 million tons of e-waste annually, and only about 20% of it is recycled.

Without shifting to more sustainable forms of technology, each of these problems will only get worse.

What can IT do take to improve sustainability?

Editor’s note: This is where it becomes difficult to just “make a list” of solutions and poof! We are all better. There are multiple countries and conglomerates involved in the mining and transportation of raw goods around the world. Manufacturing can be the life or death of entire cities. The players involved—from finance to policy, to employment—are endless. Smarter people that we have tried and failed to find a single way forward. But that’s, I think, the point: there’s no silver bullet that is going to solve the myriad damage we’ve wrought. And waiting for one means fiddling while Rome burns.

That leaves us, the non-global players, with a need to focus on local solutions. Things like reducing e-waste and reducing GHG emissions. Before we explore the cloud as a sustainable technology solution, let’s look at other steps IT can take to improve sustainability.

Use renewable energy sources whenever possible

Fundamentally, decarbonization and a shift to clean renewable energy sources that emit low or no GHGs are key to achieving sustainability goals on a large scale. And in many cases, individual IT teams can transition their power utility to clean energy, through intermediary companies that provide power and turn those profits into investments in renewables. One such example in Canada is bullfrog power. On the ground, they may be able to implement clean energy sources like solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint.

Buy efficient and sustainable technology

Programs like Energy Star and the Global Electronics Council’s EPEAT Registry of sustainable electronics help streamline the process of finding environmentally-friendly tech. In addition to the environmental benefits, energy-efficient and sustainable technology can reduce utility bills and the size of “gray-space equipment” like power supplies, air conditioners, and generators.

Limit “rip and replace” network upgrades

“Rip and replace” is a common approach to upgrading a network. Old network gear gets tossed away en masse as new equipment is installed. Software abstraction layers like SD-WAN can make it easier to add new functionality or integrations to a network without a complete overhaul. Additionally, there’s a lot of lost value in not taking the time to see if incremental upgrades might help accomplish the same results.

Check out Auvik’s Network Device Buyer’s Guide for more tips!

Recycle responsibly

Pretty straightforward: When you’re performing IT asset disposal, avoid sending equipment directly to the landfill. Organizations like e-Stewards, SERI, and many other local agencies will help make finding electronics recycling programs easier.

Treat sustainability as a non-functional requirement

AWS’s concept of sustainability as a pillar of well-architected infrastructure is powerful. If organizations treat sustainability as a foundational step— a core requirement on par with reliability, observability, and availability, they’ll naturally shift towards a more sustainable technology.

sustainability illustration

The impact of the cloud on sustainability

For many IT organizations, a carbon footprint is not an externality. It is the physical makeup and usage of the network and its components that are contributors. For example, rackmount servers like those in the HPE ProLiant, Dell PowerEdge, and Lenovo ThinkServer product lines alone generally pull hundreds of Watts (W) each. A rack full of servers can easily consume several Kilowatts (kW) of power.

In that sense, the easiest way to reduce your carbon footprint is to move workloads to the cloud. “Lifting and shifting” those server workloads to an IaaS (infrastructure as a service) provider means now you can manage everything with a laptop and internet access. You’ve reduced your energy consumption by an order of magnitude or more, right?

You can probably already see some of the flaws in that logic. In this case, the cloud will reduce your personal electricity bill or the property’s carbon footprint, but the actual emissions related to your workloads haven’t gone away. They’ve shifted to the IaaS provider’s data center.

Is it more energy-efficient to run workloads in the cloud?

From a sustainability perspective, the question becomes whether or not the net environmental impact of running cloud servers is higher or lower than running them on-prem.

Generally, yes. An International Journal of Science, Engineering, and Computer Technology study found that cloud computing can reduce carbon emissions by 30-90%. Similarly, 451 Research studies indicated that when compared to the median U.S. enterprise data center, AWS infrastructure is 3.6 times more efficient. On-prem zombie servers, inefficient legacy infrastructure devices, and underutilized hardware are commonplace.

Not to mention, most IT teams don’t have the time, resources, or economic incentives to optimize sustainability that hyper-scale cloud providers do. Cloud providers benefit from economies of scale, so are incentivized to optimize resource utilization. Hyperscale cloud data centers can invest heavily in sustainability because, for them, it makes economic sense.

That’s a big reason why hyper-scale data centers have a power usage efficiency (PUE) of about 1.2 compared to a PUE of 2.0 for traditional data centers. Coupled with net-zero and clean energy initiatives from major cloud providers like Google, AWS, and Microsoft, it’s easy to see how the cloud can have a positive environmental impact.

Beyond power efficiency

Beyond PUE, the cloud makes it easier to share data, automate business processes, and leverage the power of tools like A.I. and M.L. In theory, this should lead to a knock-on effect—multiple industries becoming more efficient overall based on cloud insights.

This theory seems to be playing out in practice too. Analysis of survey responses from IT and supply chain pros by Dara G.Schniederjans and Douglas N.Hales found a positive correlation between cloud computing and positive environmental outcomes.

Cloud computing also helps address the e-waste problem. For individual organizations, more virtual servers, desktops, and storage in the cloud mean fewer physical servers, desktops, and storage devices that need to be recycled. While it’s still important for cloud providers to properly recycle their tech, cloud servers being more efficient with hardware means less waste overall.

Sustainability technology tradeoffs with the cloud

Cloud computing isn’t the total solution. VMware’s call for more transparency around e-waste is one example of where the industry can and should do better. Similarly, the recent data center drought drama demonstrated how energy-efficient data centers can be inefficient with other resources.

Additionally, just as not all workloads are ideal for cloud computing from an operational perspective, cloud computing won’t always reduce your carbon footprint. A textbook example is an organization with a renewable energy source powering their on-prem facilities shifting to a cloud data center powered by dirty energy sources. Even if we hold the energy sources constant, organizations could maintain on-prem systems efficiently if they invest time and effort.

Cloud computing may create a more significant potential issue when we zoom out to the macro level. Though the cloud helps individual organizations be more efficient, it’s part of a broader digitization trend that’s leading to more overall consumption. And until we can replace all forms of energy generation with truly green alternatives, it’s a trend that will lead to more negative environmental outcomes.

Graph showing the escalating use of electricity by data centers between 2010-2030
Source: On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030.

Frankly, there’s no great way to buck that trend without compromising on the pace of digitization. As a society, if we want the innovation of smart cities, the insights coming with the future of IoT, and other benefits of a connected world, we have to be able to power it. Even with efficient consumption, the sheer magnitude of devices is likely to result in higher overall consumption in the years to come. That’s a big reason why decarbonization is key to sustainable tech in the long run.

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