Are our IT decisions costing the planet?

Issues raised in a new documentary, Clouded II, provide a template for greener thinking on IT provisioning

Sponsored Feature The past couple of decades have witnessed a steady exodus of enterprise applications and workloads from on-premise locations to public cloud platforms.

Organisations of every size and in every sector have been lured by the promise of cost savings and efficiencies, seduced by the goal of treating compute as just another easily accessed utility, like electricity or water.

According to research from technology services company AAG, over 98 percent of organisations now use the cloud in one way or another, whether in the form of SaaS, IaaS or PaaS applications or deployment of a fully cloud-native network. Given this statistic it might not be a shock to hear that worldwide public cloud expenditure is on track to hit an eye-popping $1.35 trillion per year by 2027, according to research firm IDC.

Small wonder that the data centre sector is struggling to plan for all this movement and storage of data, particularly given the surging cost of the electricity needed to power their facilities and the oceans of water required to cool them.

Some are now starting to question whether an unthinking rush to the cloud is necessarily the best response to every IT provisioning need. Question marks certainly hover over the philosophy of 'cloud first', the orthodoxy that says it is always best to prioritize the adoption of cloud technologies over traditional on-premise solutions. Plenty of IT decision makers now see the sense of splitting workloads between public clouds and their own infrastructure.

On a more unsettling note, some are starting to entertain doubts about the supposed fiscal upside of mass cloud adoption as the answer to every eventuality. Many organisations have in fact recorded a net increase in IT spend post-migration. Almost three quarters of the global companies queried by integration specialist Boomi have experienced an overspend in their cloud budgets, perhaps due to the all too common vice of hoarding more data than they actually need or unnecessarily overconsuming bandwidth.

It is starting to appear as though the promise of infinitely scalable compute resources has warped our attitudes to IT provisioning, encouraging wasteful procurement practices that don't give enough consideration to matching the appropriate resource to the right workload. Research from cloud optimization company CAST AI suggests that in Kubernetes clusters of 50 or more CPUs, only 13 percent of this processing power and 20 percent of available memory are typically getting used.

Cloud, despite its many benefits, appears to have conditioned us to act like hungry diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet, loading up with far more food than we need just because we can, all at the click of a mouse. We have turned into heedless digital gluttons, except unlike wasteful buffet patrons we are paying more the higher we pile our platters.

A related problem is that far too many IT chiefs find that they are unable to see where, when and how their cloud spending is allocated. A report by business monitoring company Anodot found that 54 percent of enterprises surveyed blamed lack of visibility for their waste of cloud resources and consequent bill shock.

Burning the planet a byte at a time

Hand in hand with a lack of control over runaway cloud budgets is the increasingly negative impact of the cloud industry on the environment. Burning more and more power to store increasing volumes of information, regardless of its true value, is clearly bad news for the planet. The issue is explored in a new documentary film called Clouded II, made by technology consultancy Dark Matter and commissioned by Hewlett Packard Enterprise. It illustrates in detail how a quiet crisis is unfolding with most of us unaware of its stark realities.

"Every decision has a cost – an economic cost and an environmental cost," comments Daniel Tremayne-Pitter, CEO of Dark Matter, speaking in the movie. "We need to ask if the decisions we are making are costing us – and the planet – more than they should."

Clouded II cites a study by French eco think tank The Shift Project indicating that cloud compute is already responsible for up to 3.7 percent of global greenhouse emissions, surpassing the airline sector. The wider tech sector uses around a fifth of the world's electricity to keep itself going. Clearly a more balanced and mindful approach is demanded as we plan for a digital future. The onus is not just on cloud providers. It is important that we should all be asking where, how and why we are using something that we have wrongly taken for granted as infinite and consequence-free.

Clouded II takes particular issue with the cloud industry's use of water, one of the planet's most contended resources. Data centres use a lot of it to cool their servers, depleting what nearby users, such as farmers, have available to them. A single data centre can consume up to five million gallons of water per day. Europeans will soon be using more water to enable their internet consumption than they drink. With data centres expanding in number around the world and global temperatures hitting new highs, a fresh approach is needed. The cloud sector and the enterprise customers that rely on it must acknowledge that implementing sustainable practices, such as optimising data centre efficiency, adopting renewable energy sources and promoting circular economy principles, will not only improve ecological outcomes but lead to cost savings over the long term.

But doing the right thing is not always easy, especially if you can't measure it. As with cost overruns and consumption patterns, it is often hard for IT bosses to get a true handle on just how ecologically harmful their IT provisioning decisions are. Most struggle with a lack of accurate data on carbon footprints and greenhouse emissions. It is generally the case that insufficient information is put out by public cloud providers, hampering their customers' ability to make an informed decisions on sustainable procurement. AWS, for example, has come under pressure to provide easier access to detailed data about its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to help its customers assess their environmental footprint in readiness for scrutiny from regulators.

Better approaches, better outcomes

The way organisations are using cloud resources right now may have questionable economic benefits and unpalatable environmental consequences, but there is no escaping cloud's many benefits when done right. Clouded II acknowledges our need for cloud while calling for a reset of our cloud approaches. It points to our abrupt transformation to a digitally-dependent society and the fact that we haven't had much time to refine and adjust its workings. The inflection point is now here where we must find more nuanced ways of doing things. It is time for a more conscious and measured hybrid approach to compute where fitness for purpose is given consideration over abundance. A hybrid cloud model, where some workloads are retained on premise and others placed in a public cloud, allows organisations to balance their needs, optimising resource utilisation on a case by case basis.

A more strategic portioning of workloads between on-premise and cloud can lead to energy-efficient and cost-effective infrastructure that is appropriate for each application, reducing both negative environmental impact and operational overspend. More scrutiny means, for example, choosing to rely on data centres that do a better job of making use of renewable energy sources.

"We're seeing a lot of companies now recognising that they can build their own sort of public cloud on-premise, with much higher efficiencies," argues Nicola Peill-Moelter PhD, former Director of Sustainability Innovation at VMware, speaking in Clouded II.

It's all about fitness for purpose, agrees Jez Back, a certified FinOps professional: "Cloud is just a tool for you to be able to compute, store data and do end to end business workflows," he notes. "It's about using the right tool for the right job. The functions you do in an on-premise scenario, a hybrid scenario or even an all-in public cloud scenario are essentially the same. You spin up a workload to get a business outcome."

Looking to the future, it is clear that the environmental cost of cloud is not going to get better without substantial proactive intervention. In fact, uncorrected the problem will undoubtedly get markedly more acute. As AI-driven applications, with their heavy data storage and processing requirements, become ever more powerful they are set to take a dramatically higher toll in terms of electricity usage. The Wall Street Journal has estimated that AI-related power consumption by US datacenters is already at four percent of total national power grid output, a figure liable to rise to something more like 25 percent by 2030. Large language models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT have an insatiable thirst for power compared with traditional search engines like Google. A single ChatGPT request burns around ten times as much power as a conventional Web search.

The cloud industry can no longer deny the toll it is taking on the planet. Greater power efficiency and new approaches to the provisioning of compute are paramount. But we don't need to leave the initiative to the hyperscale sector. We can all start to implement a more balanced approach that blends public with hybrid and private cloud and thus avoid wasteful and harmful use of cloud resources. CIOs and other IT professionals must become more mindful of the environmental consequences of their choices, realising that cloud does not come for free either in terms of sustainability or their budgets.

Sponsored by HPE.

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