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5 questions business sustainability leaders should ask their cloud providers

Digital data has a distinct physical footprint, and from a sustainability perspective, managing business data is a material environmental concern.

5 questions business sustainability leaders should ask their cloud providers
[Image: Chris Clor/Getty Images]

The amount of industry transformation and cloud adoption that has occurred over the last two years has been explosive as the pandemic accelerated the global digitization of our personal and professional lives. Digital is our new economic normal: Over the next decade, 70% of new economic value created globally will come from digitally enabled platform business models, the World Economic Forum predicts.  

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 Yet, digital data is not ephemeral. Because it’s stored in data centers, which house, manage, distribute, and secure digital information, it has a distinct physical footprint. From a sustainability perspective, managing business data is a material environmental concern, and partnering with the right cloud provider is a strategic business decision. Both traditional and digital entities have a responsibility to measure the emissions that come from their data, even when it is held in the hands of a third-party provider. They need to own the responsibility to influence how their cloud providers manage data sustainably, as well as further upstream. in how and where data centers are built and managed through their entire lifespan. 

Convincing digitally enabled businesses to prioritize the measurement of their environmental footprint, particularly emissions from their cloud computing and data server needs, is not easy. These cloud-based entities tend to demure, stating that their carbon contributions are miniscule compared to more traditional businesses with physical footprints and products. It’s a position at odds with the known and evolving environmental impacts of the data center industry.

In 2021, data centers consumed some 3% of all electricity generated globally. That number, triple what it was just five years ago, is expected to grow to 8% by 2030 if projected power consumption trends are not countered by technological efficiencies.

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But power consumption is not the only (environmental) story to be told. The need to build more and ever bigger data centers is voracious. In 2021, there were 8,000 data centers worldwide, over a third located in North America. As of 2021, the “big three” Cloud providers—Microsoft, Amazon and Google—controlled half of the world’s 600 hyperscale data centers, or facilities between 10,000 and 100,000 square feet in size. Building footprints, hardware replacement cycles, wiring needs, cooling systems, fresh water use, and redundant power generation requirements all contribute to an environmental footprint that is meaningful—necessary to understand and important to manage.  

Below are five data center considerations that companies’ chief sustainability officers should discuss with their existing or potential cloud providers. 

1. What is the power consumption makeup of the data centers that house your company’s data? 

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Some 40% of a data center’s energy consumption is used to cool the internal server farms. Most data centers have installed highly inefficient and power-hungry mechanical cooling systems, usually on building roofs, where they emit a good amount of carbon dioxide and either chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) into the atmosphere, which deplete the ozone and warm the planet. More sophisticated “free” cooling systems use available water bodies or naturally cool air to keep servers at a steady temperature to prevent overheating.  

Back-up diesel generators are the norm, not the exception, at data centers to ensure double-and-triple power redundancy. Those generators must burn off unused fuel periodically for proper functioning, which mandates running them for semi-extended periods of time. Increasingly, advanced data centers source on-site renewable energy and employ low-to-no carbon emitting back-up power systems that support resiliency and redundancy for always-on servers.  

2. How are your data centers designed, and where are they located? 

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A rural setting allows for a larger, more expansive data center to be built to centralize data management and optimize the internal design of the server farms and wiring systems. Heat recovery systems can use the residual heat generated from servers to power the electrical needs of colocated offices or local communities. But power supply may be less reliable, requiring more environmentally unfriendly energy generation technology like lead-acid uninterruptible battery-power supply systems. Rural settings also require supplies to be trucked in from farther distances, generating greater carbon emissions footprints. They also sometimes convert green fields into industrial parks, which can affect the hydrology of the surrounding land. 

The electricity grid in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. is made up of nearly 90% renewable energy, for example, versus just 39% in the state of Georgia.   

3. What technology innovations are employed at your data center?

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If your cloud partner is one of the big three providers, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and edge computing are reducing the amount of time and power needed to process client data, reducing emissions. If those are not your cloud providers, find out how your data center is optimizing its energy usage, server uptimes, and data security risks with AI and ML technologies.  

4. How are materials, e-waste, and packaging handled at their end of life?  

Data centers are known to be high-consuming entities of computing equipment and the wiring that powers them. Electronics are typically replaced every 3 to 5 years. Rewiring happens more frequently, and subsequently old, discarded cables often get kicked under the server farms until they become a fire hazard. Back-up generators are typically employed for a half-life to avoid any lack of redundancy concerns. All of these data center products come in packaging that adds up to tens of tons of boxes to be recycled annually, and it’s up to data center managers whether all these electronics are recycled responsibly. Ask your cloud provider what its data center material EoL policies and practices are.

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5. Does your data center operate to a sustainability standard or adhere to any industry compliance measures? 

Who is in charge of auditing and rating the sustainability performance of data centers? Is that information publicly available? How does your cloud provider rank among its industry peers in sustainability performance? This is where the industry needs to progress, and fast, given its anticipated growth in the coming years and its power-hungry nature. 

Each of these factors determines the impact a data center and, by default, digitally enabled entities have on the environment. It’s not enough to pass the buck and the burden of emissions reporting onto your server partners. Understanding the mix of data center possibilities, and embedding sustainability into your data decision-making, makes smart business and environmental sense.

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Kate Gaertner is the founder and CEO of TripleWin Advisory, a corporate sustainability consultancy. She is the author of Planting a Seed: Three Simple Steps to Sustainable Living.

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