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Achieving a greener application landscape through cloud sustainability

 As digitalisation marches on, more and more companies are shifting their IT systems over to the cloud. Ever larger new data centres are springing to life to meet this growing demand – and consuming huge quantities of power in the process. This raises the question of how corporate IT as a whole can be made more sustainable. And what role does cloud migration have to play in this?  

5 minutes to read

We discussed these questions with Primo Amrein, Cloud Lead at Microsoft Switzerland, and Jürg Borter, Head of Cloud at Zühlke, in our Late Afternoon Talk ‘Achieving a greener application landscape through cloud sustainability’. A recent Gartner study found that spending on cloud-based services will rise by up to 25 % per year between now and 2025. That makes a sustainable and energy-efficient approach a must. Our Late Afternoon Talk reveals how you can make your journey to the cloud more sustainable across the board, considering the impact of both infrastructure and applications. 

You can find the full insights in the recording of the talk – it is only available in German, but we have also summarised the key findings for you here. 

Sustainability through Hyperscale Cloud (German only)

Benefits of scale and better capacity utilisation mean more sustainable data centres

Primo Amrein believes that it is incumbent on data centre operators to invest in sustainable solutions. That is why Microsoft is making its centres as large as possible. This might sound illogical, but it enables the company to unlock benefits of scale in terms of server operation, space, lighting, energy, cooling, etc. Energy consumption per server is significantly lower in a large, high-volume data centre than in a small one. The use of cutting-edge technology – be that in the network, the servers themselves or the cooling systems – also plays a major role. 

Another critical contributor to making data centres more sustainable is achieving high infrastructure utilisation. Here again, larger centres have the edge: their more varied user base allows the capacity to be better planned and assigned more efficiently than is possible at a smaller operation. For instance, one data centre runs applications that are mainly used throughout the day in parallel with applications that run overnight, such as batch tasks. This means that there is equally good capacity utilisation across 24 hours and across all customers, with the bottom line being an efficiency gain of 70 to 90 % in CO2 emissions per user after all measures are taken into consideration. 

Primo Amrein believes that a lot has already been done in terms of data centre energy efficiency, but that we are still a long way from the finish line. He therefore gave various examples in the talk of innovations that could make data centres more sustainable: 

  • Liquid server cooling: this technology cuts electricity consumption and boosts energy recapture. Another project has even shown that autonomous data centres located undersea fail less often. 

  • Intermediate energy storage: some data centres are deployed temporarily to make renewable energy more efficient. The batteries that are already there anyway are used for interim storage of renewable power, which can be fed into the general grid as needed. 

  • Circular economy: this includes recycling components used on site, choosing biodegradable components and sustainable circuit-boards and opting for sustainable materials when building data centres. 

Sustainability as a non-functional requirement on the journey to the cloud

“The potential of applications lies beneath the surface for users,” explains Jürg Borter, who likens applications to an iceberg, with most of its bulk hidden beneath the waves. Looking more deeply into this potential, we see four main levers that can be used to embed sustainability within an application as a non-functional requirement: 

Application code: The code behind an application can have a tremendous impact on its efficiency, and by extension its sustainability. The data structures, models and code must ensure that an app runs as energy-efficiently as possible, i.e. the required results can be achieved with as few computational processes as possible. A twin benefit is that this not only boosts energy efficiency but also improves performance. For web applications, it is important that as little data as possible – meaning only the essentials – is transferred, because data transfer itself consumes energy. 

Application architecture 

Optimising the application architecture also holds a great deal of potential. Like the code, this should be designed so as to reach maximum efficiency and with a clear focus on the results in order to reduce the energy consumed during operation. Platform-as-a-Service is an increasingly popular option; this is designed with efficiency in mind and allows for scalability in both directions. 

The cloud service itself 

Zühlke supports companies in evaluating and selecting suitable cloud providers and hyperscalers. The ideal choice is a cloud service that offers flexibility and scalability, which both directly influence an application’s sustainability. For instance, let’s consider an online store that has peaks in utilisation at certain times and around certain events. If the business uses a cloud service that covers its needs in normal operation and can then quickly scale up to handle peaks, the application can run much more efficiently than if it always has to run at maximum capacity. 

The cloud provider’s infrastructure 

The infrastructure is directly linked to the cloud service provided. As outlined above, benefits of scale, optimised capacity utilisation and constant innovation are critical factors in cloud data centre sustainability. 

Four steps to cloud sustainability

To return to the image of the iceberg, most businesses have not just a single application but an entire Arctic Ocean of applications to transfer over to the cloud. Jürg Borter therefore recommends taking the journey to the cloud one step at a time in order to reduce complexity.  

Zühlke has developed a proven four-step process for this journey: 

  • Adopting metrics: defining sustainability objectives and KPIs to make these measurable. 

  • Selecting the right provider: choosing a hyperscaler for your firm’s own journey to the cloud. 

  • Rationalisation: establishing how the entire application landscape can be moved over to the cloud, including with a view to sustainability considerations. 

  • Monitoring: once the transformation has taken place, constantly monitoring and optimising how it works. There are already some good solutions available, such as Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability

Both providers and users of cloud services have a huge influence over the sustainability of cloud applications. This makes cloud sustainability their joint responsibility, and the two sides can already use their powers together to make data centres and applications sustainable through efficient operation. However, there is still plenty of scope for further progress, and innovations in the cloud IT ecosystem will open up new opportunities. 

Do you have any questions about sustainability at Zühlke or specific queries about your own journey to the cloud? Then get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.