In the past few years, it has become the norm for tech companies to not own any servers and instead rely on cloud-based services to handle their data storage and computing infrastructure. A wide variety of companies such as Netflix, Pinterest and Airbnb rely on AWS’s suite of cloud services to manage all their IT infrastructure .
To fulfill its customer promise of fast and reliable IT infrastructure services at low costs, AWS owns a large number of data centers throughout the world, each containing a huge number of servers.
Data centers are huge consumers of electricity due to the immense energy required to power as well as to cool down the servers. On average, one data center consumes as much energy as 25,000 homes .
Operations at AWS are affected by climate change in two ways: the mix of energy supplied to data centers and each center’s power consumption.
Traditionally, AWS did not pay much attention to its data centers’ “energy mix” or the proportion of clean energy used. In 2014, a study characterized it as the least sustainable among all leading cloud providers with only 13.5% of its energy from renewable sources and no foreseeable renewable energy commitments . Soon after, in November 2014, it announced a long-term commitment to 100% renewable energy and began investing resources in wind and solar power in regions where its data centers were located , .
However, critics continued to berate the company for its power mix, in particular for its data centers in Virginia, aka the “Dirty North-East”. These centers, which consist of 70% of all servers, consume only 4% of energy from renewable sources . In this region, AWS was unable to use the energy from its solar and wind projects due to the nature of the power supply chain. Electricity from all sources, renewable and non-renewable, fed into a collective regional grid. The dominant retail provider, Dominion Virginia Power (DVP), purchased power from this collective grid and distributed it to consumers including AWS. DVP had full control over its energy source mix and predominantly used market forces to make the decision. AWS, hence, had no control on the energy mix for its data centers . In June 2016, AWS entered into a first-of-its-kind energy services management deal with DVP. Through the deal, AWS agreed to purchase services from DVP that allow it to have a greater say in the power mix that DVP purchases and provides to the regional grid that services AWS data centers .
Going forward, AWS will be under constant scrutiny for the power mix utilized by its data centers and it should strive to continue in its quest to power its data centers through renewable sources. Choice of data center location should also take into account availability of clean energy in the area.
While clean power is important for AWS in the long term, it will not be feasible in the near term for its upcoming and existing centers; hence, power consumption of each data center is also crucial. AWS’ operating model inherently requires that it constantly strive to reduce power consumption costs of a data center through increased server utilization and energy efficiency . By investing in more optimized equipment, better cooling systems and better server management, the company can lead the way in reducing data center power consumption [e.g. 10, 11, 12].
At present, the company does not share any metrics on how its own data centers perform on power consumption metrics . Given its competencies in these areas and its push towards sustainability, this is an opportunity for the company to set an example for the rest of the industry and showcase its path towards a reduced carbon footprint. The organization should not shy away from regularly sharing metrics around its data centers’ carbon footprints. There is a growing body of research in computer systems in reducing power consumption in data centers [e.g. 10, 11, 12]. The company should take the opportunity to lead innovation in this sector by partnering with the other companies and the broader research community to further knowledge around ways to reduce carbon footprint of data centers. Google for instance has already started to be a part of the conversation .
In conclusion, in the next few years, carbon emission management will become central to data center operation decisions for AWS. The company has already embraced climate change as a business opportunity. “It’s greener in the cloud” is its claim that in choosing to use cloud services instead of maintaining their own local servers, organizations not only gain from a business perspective but also help climate change . To maintain its position as the leading cloud provider, AWS will need to step up and be a thought leader in this space.
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