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The Race to a Zero-Carbon Cloud Future

Ashley Speagle
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Continuing innovation in software and data center efficiency will improve sustainability for businesses across industries.

This year, businesses radically accelerated their digital transformations. Employees now work from home in record numbers. And there’s an app for just about every customer experience.

Data centers, humming away out of sight, power new ways of working, learning and playing. How will these vital sources of connectivity handle newer and bigger computing demands — while making as little an impact on the environment as possible?

How Much Computing Power Will the World Need?

Data centers consume about 1% of worldwide electricity. That may sound surprisingly low, considering all the activity happening in the technologies. But according to one survey, most data centers waste electricity:

Almost 9-out-of-10 data centers are not designed for optimal power efficiency, which, as a result, can cost a data center more than $1.4 million every year in wasted electricity.

Andy Patrizio, Network World

It takes billions of gallons of water, largely for cooling, to generate this electricity at power plants. And it takes billions of more gallons to operate data centers.

Data centers cover a lot of land, too. Some of the largest data centers in the world sprawl out over hundreds of acres.

Inside, there may be as many as tens of thousands of servers and other components, built using precious metals. These rare and valuable materials often end up in landfills, along with hazardous chemicals and other toxic e-waste.

This all adds up to a significant environmental impact. And the world’s reliance on computers continues growing. A few trends, in particular, will impact data center usage in a major way:

  • Computing Demands Rise in a Digital Economy: Industry insiders expect to see trends like remote work, virtual learning and telehealth continue after the pandemic subsides.
  • Internet Users Steadily Grow: Not everyone is even online, yet. Ongoing investments in infrastructure, including 5G, will connect more people online.
  • Enterprises Adopt Data-Driven Tech: Analyzing big data and running machine learning (ML) applications require much more computing resources. 5G and enterprise solutions will soon make these technologies more accessible to enterprises.

Early Innovation in Sustainable Computing

The good news is this won’t be the first time that data centers are put to the test. “The amount of computing done in data centers more than quintupled between 2010 and 2018,” Data Center Knowledge reported. “However, the amount of energy consumed by the world’s data centers grew only 6% during that period, thanks to improvements in energy efficiency.”

One reason: the adoption of cloud computing. Cloud providers optimize their infrastructure to run with the utmost efficiency.

Virtualization is another reason computing power usage stayed relatively flat over the last decade. Virtualization technologies replace physical hardware with software-based versions of apps, servers, storage and networks. That means there’s less infrastructure and fewer data centers relying on fewer power plants.

IDC has estimated the cumulative avoided carbon emissions since 2003 from the use of VMware’s virtualization technology to be about 3% of the world’s annual emissions in 2019,” said Nicola Peill-Moelter, director of sustainability innovation for VMware.

“But as the world continues its digital transformation, workloads will continue to grow exponentially,” she said. “And virtualization won’t be sufficient to keep data center energy and carbon emissions in check.”

Continuing Innovation in Sustainable Computing

“There is a compelling opportunity. Generally, more sustainable data centers are also more productive, secure and cost-efficient data centers, whether on premises or in the public cloud. Smart companies are not waiting for their data center budgets and carbon emissions to explode,” Peill-Moelter said. “They’re proactively managing workload growth.”

Cloud providers and enterprise IT partners, like VMware, are finding new ways to help businesses reduce their digital and carbon footprints.

Zero-Carbon Clouds

Both Amazon and Microsoft have committed to running their public cloud infrastructure entirely on renewable energy by 2025, including the AWS and Azure cloud platforms. Meanwhile, Google plans “to run our business on carbon-free energy everywhere, at all times, by 2030.”

VMware partners with these hyperscalers to help customers use zero-carbon public clouds. And VMware wants to do much more.

About 4,000 additional public cloud partners greatly expand the number of public clouds that are “zero carbon” through renewable energy procurement. Peill-Moelter believes that “the many customers who have set aggressive supply chain decarbonization goals will value this initiative.”

Sustainable IT Management

As workloads explode, companies need to ensure that the productivity of their IT infrastructure is maximized. This will prevent data center infrastructure budgets from exploding, too. One way of going about that: freeing up “stranded assets.”

“Stranded assets are compute resources that could be put to productive use, but are inaccessible to users,” said Tom Scanlan, application platforms architect for VMware. “Our vision is to terminate, trim, trade and turn off this stranded capacity and make it available for productive use.”

Scanlan explained four types of stranded assets that waste resources and cost money:

  1. Zombies: These are long forgotten virtual machines (VMs), like smartphone apps that are no longer used. How might businesses better track VMs and containers to detect and discontinue those in “zombie” mode — recovering valuable compute resources?
  2. Oversized VMs: These assets unnecessarily hoard computing CPU and memory. By rightsizing the VM or container, can IT free resources for better use?
  3. Spare: Sometimes temporarily spare computing resources are locked up behind organizational siloes. Instead, what if groups could temporarily loan computing resources through smart-sharing?
  4. Snoozing: These hosts and clusters are only used at certain times. Instead of waiting in “snooze” mode, what if these assets could be safely turned off at known times — and brought back online when needed again?

Measuring Computing Sustainability

All this gets to a core question for businesses: “What’s useful, and what is wasteful?” asked Victor Firoiu, senior academic research lead for VMware. “That’s the big question as we ramp up all this computation with machine learning.”

In partnership with Peill-Moelter and Scanlan, he’s one of the people leading the charge on continuing innovation in sustainable computing. This, he said, involves improving data center infrastructure energy efficiency and server utilization through virtualization. It also means tackling what’s going on inside apps—waste and bloat.

But there’s more research to do to find the environmental costs. “We need metrics and benchmarks for systemic computational efficiency, hardware-software co-optimization and also workload-shifting,” Firoiu said.

VMware and the National Science Foundation asked researchers to explore this and other methods for improving software efficiency. “The low-hanging fruit has been picked. Now there’s a harder job ahead,” Firoiu said.

VMware and the National Science Foundation recently partnered on a new initiative to foster academic research on “The Next Generation of Sustainable Digital Infrastructure” (NGSDI). This new program is asking researchers to explore fundamental innovations for improving the sustainability of computation, communication and storage across the full Development and Operations (DevOps) software lifecycle, including the management of the Digital Infrastructure and software workloads. “The low-hanging fruit has been picked. Now there’s a harder, but very interesting and rewarding work ahead,” Firoiu said.

A Multiplying Force for Good

Computing sustainability isn’t just about cutting the IT industry’s carbon emissions. As cloud providers and IT partners cut carbon, so do the hospitals, banks and retailers that use those digital services.

“We’re seeing exponential growth in the number of companies signing up for things like science-based targets, which are setting very aggressive decarbonization goals,” Peill-Moelter said. “These global, very large marquee companies are looking for solutions to decarbonize their operations.”

Cleaner computing truly shapes technology into a force for good — a good that multiplies as life goes digital.

More than 1,000 companies worldwide are leading the zero-carbon transition by setting emissions reduction targets through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

Science Based Targets