3 steps toward a sustainable cloud strategy

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest post from Miguel Angel Borrega, senior director analyst at Gartner.

Environmental sustainability is becoming a top business priority, with a recent Gartner survey indicating that sustainability ranked among CEOs’ top 10 priorities for 2022.

Organizations determined to reduce their environmental impact must focus on the sustainability of their IT initiatives, including their cloud and edge infrastructure.

Most IT organizations are aware of the environmental benefits of cloud service offerings to achieve sustainability objectives, but few include sustainability as criteria when selecting a cloud service provider. However, Gartner predicts that by 2025, the carbon emissions strategies of hyperscale cloud providers will be a top-three criterion in cloud purchase decisions.

Shifting between cloud service providers is a long, complex and costly process. It is essential that organizations undertake a careful analysis of providers’ current environmental sustainability efforts and roadmap now, to avoid getting stuck with the wrong sustainability partner. 

1. Discuss cloud service providers’ sustainability goals

Before engaging with any service provider on sustainability, IT leaders must understand their organization’s sustainability objectives and timelines. This will enable the organization to identify cloud service providers aligned to their goals.

The most critical question IT leaders must ask is how and by how much cloud service providers will reduce emissions associated with services the enterprise will consume.

The response should relate to both the service provider’s own operations and that of its supply chain, as well as how the provider can guide the enterprise in the use and configuration of consumed services.

Ask prospective cloud service providers about their environmental sustainability commitments and goals, including planned due dates and current level of achievement.

Ideally, providers will partner with a sustainability organization to audit these goals to certify the information provided.

2. Evaluate energy efficiency, renewable use and resource effectiveness

When assessing cloud service provider sustainability, evaluate metrics across various criteria.

First, consider power usage effectiveness (PUE) of a cloud data center. PUE is a standard metric that shows the overhead of air conditioning and power distribution infrastructure — the largest source of data center inefficiency.

World-class data centers have a PUE around 1.1, while anything over 1.6 usually has room for improvement. Discuss with providers their current PUE metrics and what sustainability innovations might improve upon PUE.

Next, investigate whether cloud providers have achieved energy efficiency certifications by third parties. This can demonstrate a provider’s level of capability and commitment to sustainability goals.

Many certifications can differentiate cloud providers, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) within data centers or ISO 50001 to demonstrate the provider has implemented an energy management system.

Examine providers’ use of renewable energy. Ask cloud service providers what percentage of energy consumed in the regions relevant to the enterprise’s consumption of cloud services comes from renewable resources.

The global number is helpful, but not as transparent as a country or regional view.

Measuring water use effectiveness (WUE) is also important, as water plays an essential role in cooling data centers. WUE tracks all sources of water used to cool data centers and is based on metered flow from utilities.

Most hyperscalers are not currently sharing this information publicly, but they plan to include it in future ESG reports. Ask providers about their WUE and what actions they are taking to reduce water consumption.

From a circularity perspective, cloud services are inherently better than on-premises data centers because product ownership is retained by the provider, which has the scale, commercial interest and capabilities to invest in circularity practices.

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