Environmental and social governance (ESG) criteria are increasingly factored in the decision making process for investments inter and intra businesses. Through CSR charters and tenders, companies must often show actions not only on worker rights, diversity, board and audit committee structure, but contribution to and impact on climate change. Of course Governments are first under the spotlights, having to ascertain current net contributions to CO2 emissions, set targets, identify sources and opportunities for lower carbon emissions, and put tangible plans in action.
A report dated Oct 2019 from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK stated that 56% of carbon emissions in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) comes from server rooms. It goes on further revealing that it is actually likely significantly higher than 56% given the way “IT Technology” only partially covers IT, differentiating “enabling” technologies from “delivery” technologies, and leaving the former ones out of the server rooms and the equation.
Nevertheless, whatever the number, it is clear that server rooms are leading the pack, from the distance, in terms of carbon emissions when it comes to ICT. Not surprising therefore that investors and decision makers have been increasingly steered towards Cloud offerings as a solution to the ESG and server rooms equation.
Whilst the case for Cloud in the ESG context (mutualisation, optimization, lean technologies, low energy consumption components etc.) comes across as sensible, few aspects remain to be discussed. I will briefly cover three.
The first one is reporting. Climate is not all about numbers… but it is all about numbers! In that same report from DECRA, from all Government hosting and Cloud services providers prompted for consumption and emissions stats, only one reverted with tangible responses rather than marketing and PR content. I do not doubt that this isn’t disingenuous from hosting and Cloud services providers; it evidences that they need increase focus in reporting from within. Microsoft with Azure has made good inroads towards reporting.
Second one is usage. Automatic scaling of storage and compute power, coupled with the cost competitiveness Cloud hosting and services provide, have moved the goal posts in ICT. The good old free() function in C++ (and the likes) no longer holds a frontbencher seat. Archiving is a clear example whereby numerous organisations now archive petabytes of data for regulatory purposes – for much longer than regulators require: “it is cheap and easy” sure, but also qualifies as carbon-generating waste. Another interesting case is Youtube. Leader in their space, music videos dominate the most-viewed videos on the platform: the value for the user is the track, the video is secondary. Yet the video consumes significantly more storage, compute power and bandwidth than the track itself. Again “cheap and easy” poses a serious challenge to controlled carbon emissions.
Third one is cooling. Significant work has been done in terms of powering Data Centers with green energy and devising intelligent predictive algorithms for optimizing servers power consumption. Google, for example, now sources 100% of their energy needs for powering their Data Centers from renewables thus lowering their carbon footprint. We need however not to forget that those same Data Centers need cooling, and for so need water. Millions of gallons of water. Water is a precious resource and concerns have been raised. This too needs focus.
Are investors and decision makers misled towards Cloud offerings as a solution to the ESG and server rooms equation? Unlikely. Even though aspects of Cloud hosting and services shall – and will – be addressed, there is little doubt that carbon emission from one storage or compute unit in the Cloud will be lower than the equivalent unit “on-prem”. The real debate on Cloud carbon footprint stems from its limitless and unconstrained nature: how does the value created by one storage or compute unit in the Cloud compare to value created by an equivalent unit “on-prem”?