1 April 2022

The growing trend of multi-cloud computing setups (and what this means for Net Zero)

The splintered approach of major cloud providers towards digital carbon is threatening to undermine accurate ESG reporting for multi-cloud setups. What can we do?

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By Ben Price
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There is an increasing ethical and legislative demand for organisations to report on their digital emissions. Digital carbon now accounts for 4% of total carbon emissions around the world and, shocking as this is, this realisation has coincided with a change in computing habits which makes understanding that figure a tricky task.

Modern businesses have been adopting cloud computing en masse.

And why wouldn’t they?

The traditional model of privately owning physical servers, or renting a permanent portion of a data centre, is now expensive, outdated and unnecessary. Cloud computing offers a flexible and far less expensive alternative to this, retaining the benefits of the private server approach, while almost all of the heavy lifting is carried out by the cloud provider - usually trusted and industry-leading brands, like Microsoft, Google or Amazon.

Advantages of cloud computing, besides lower maintenance and setup costs, include improved general performance, a near-limitless capacity for storage, and a global reach that enables data to be stored in different locations around the world, closer to the end-users.

Best of all, as the cloud provider creates a virtual machine on the physical server where your data is stored, you won’t notice any difference between the cloud computing experience and running your own server.

That’s why, for many, the move to cloud computing has been a no-brainer. Indeed most modern companies are unlikely to have ever operated another way.

Data is hard to find and calculations don’t match up

Unfortunately, in a time when businesses need to take responsibility for the greenhouse emissions caused by their digital activity, cloud computing has actually made this harder than in past models.

If the digital sustainability revolution had begun twenty years ago, companies could have easily incorporated the electricity used to run their onsite servers into their ESG reporting. But now, this information is nearly impossible to access. Usage data is hidden amongst the opaque processes of AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud and, even when accessed and organised, usage data is not easily transformed into emissions data.

What are cloud providers doing about this? In short, not enough.

AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft do have tools that aim to give an estimate of a user's digital carbon footprint, but these have been considered incomplete and overly general by many users. (https://thestack.technology/aws-carbon-footprint-tool/)

Moreover, their calculations and methodology are all quite different, with little to no transparency on how they reach their results.

A problem shared, a problem doubled

To make matters worse, many organisations are now moving towards multi-cloud setups, meaning their applications are split across a number of different cloud providers.

This approach has natural benefits, allowing developers to play to the different strengths of the providers across applications, and is also the natural result of a split market, with different teams and individuals gaining familiarity with certain providers, leading to different parts of the same company splintering between them.

But this convenience does not extend to understanding cloud emissions. In fact, multi-cloud computing is even more of a headache to report and manage.

As the three major cloud providers drag their heels over cloud emissions while travelling in different directions regarding calculations and methodology, any data customers can get their hands on will prove tricky to reconcile into a coherent dataset. Not to mention multi-cloud setups involving the many other emerging cloud providers, which may further complicate the picture.

Without easily accessible, coherent data from all cloud providers, digital reporting is suffering - and this affects the ability of organisations to truly achieve their Net Zero pledges.

Untangling the emissions of multi-cloud setups with Cloud NetZero

We’re making it our business to build a software tool that can easily access and organise usage data from all cloud providers at once, before using our academically researched carbon algorithm to uniformly produce cloud emissions data that can be presented simply in one easy-to-understand dashboard.

As cloud computing continues to develop, there are certainly more and more possibilities opening up for users. However, with the climate crisis and necessary legislation looming, the puzzle of cloud emissions data is one that we’ll benefit from solving sooner, rather than later.