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AWS sustainability push: Can cloud go green in 2022?

AWS pushed for sustainability at re:Invent 2021. But how is responsibility split between AWS and cloud builders, and what will green mean for engineers?

Jun 08, 2023 • 8 Minute Read

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In this post, we'll talk about the Amazon Web Services (AWS) push for sustainability, how AWS feels sustainability responsibility should be split between AWS and builders, and what it might mean for cloud and development in 2022 and beyond.

Earth: it's the only planet we have. It's also the only place in the known universe that has pizza. So it probably comes as no surprise that cloud providers are pushing for sustainability so we can keep this whole existing-and-occasionally-eating-pizza party going a bit longer.

At re:Invent 2021, AWS announced it's ramping up its pizza-preservation sustainability efforts by adding a new Sustainability Pillar to the AWS Well-Architected Framework and working on an AWS customer carbon footprint tool as two key components of a push to encourage developers to make sustainability a core consideration. Will these moves help developers and organizations go green (or greener) with cloud in the years ahead? 

In this post, ACG's Jess Alvarez and Stephen Sennett share some thoughts on this news and what it will mean for the future of cloud computing.

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Who's responsible for sustainability: you or AWS?

Talking about sustainability is one thing. (AWS has about a dozen pages boasting their green initiatives to date and yet to come.) But who is going to be making the changes that actually move the needle: developers and their organizations or AWS?

AWS says the answer is "all of the above."

At re:Invent 2021, AWS introduced its "shared responsibility model for sustainability," which essentially says that AWS will be responsible for the sustainability of the cloud, while customers are responsible for sustainability in the cloud.

Note: This is not the same as the AWS Shared Responsibility Model (because tech companies are awesome at naming things).

The chart below based on CTO Werner Vogel’s keynote at re:Invent 2021 covers it pretty well if that snappy summary doesn’t do it for you. (You can watch the keynote in its entirety here.)

AWS shared responsibility model for sustainability

AWS responsibilitiesCustomer responsibilities
WastePlatform deployments and scaling
Data centerSoftware application design
CoolingData design and usage
Electrical SupplyData storage
ServersCode efficiency
WaterUtilization and scaling
Building materials

"Typical utilization in the data center is 12–15%,” Vogels said. “It basically means that 85% of the energy you're using is lost — is useless."

According to an October 2019 report (commissioned by AWS) and written by 451 Research, moving on-premises workloads to AWS can lower carbon footprint by 88%. 

AWS infrastructure is 3.6 times more energy efficient than the average enterprise data center, with most of that advantage due to more energy-efficient servers and higher server utilization, the report also found.

Vogels added that serverless services can really have an impact as they can be engineered for high efficiency far beyond what the average organization could ever achieve.

AWS had originally pledged to be using 100% renewable energy by 2030, but it now predicts it will be fully sustainable by 2025 with a global capacity of 12GW.

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Calculating your organization’s carbon footprint

For organizations wanting to look at their carbon footprint, the process can be difficult.

As AWS Community Builder Stephen Sennett writes, "Measuring your organization's climate impact is extremely challenging, let alone when your technology is running on mysterious black boxes in locations half-way around the world that you'll never see . . . While AWS's economies of scale definitely mean byte-for-byte, your workload will be less carbon impactful than a traditional datacenter, it's not enough if you don't know how your footprint is looking."

To help with this, AWS is (eventually) rolling out the AWS Customer Carbon Footprint Tool, which the company says is "coming soon." This tool will offer clear metrics about how much carbon you’re using in your applications and accounting for AWS use of renewable energy.

This announcement marks one of the rare times that AWS announce something that isn’t available, so hopefully that speaks to how seriously they’re taking this and how strongly the believe it will be worked into the development process in the future.

Sustainability becomes part of smart cloud architecture

Developers think about optimizing things like security, reliability, cost, and performance. These “pillars” form the heart of the AWS Well-Architected Framework, which (now) covers the following six areas:

  • Operational excellence
  • Security
  • Reliability
  • Performance efficiency
  • Cost optimization
  • Sustainability

The AWS Well-Architected Framework is a set of AWS resources designed to help builders get the most out of AWS and was first unveiled in 2015. (For more info, check out Mark Nunnikohven’s course, Mastering the AWS Well-Architected Framework.)

Challenging the "always on" mantra

The new Sustainability Pillar’s focus on scaling and design on the customers’ side offers the potential to be greener and save companies cash. Because maybe your company could care less about being green, but they almost certainly care about saving green. And energy isn’t exactly cheap. 

"We can do our part by making sure our code and designs are built with efficiency in mind. This will also go hand in hand with costs," ACG’s Jess Alvarez said. "The more efficient your code and design, the less excess workload you'll see — and less workload means less cost."

The greenest energy

In a post on his predictions for 2022, Vogels predicts that we will start to see developers place more consideration on switching off resources.

"'Always on' is a mantra that many build to, but it comes with a cost. When considering the idle resources needed for an 'always on' architecture, we may start to see a new mantra emerge that 'the greenest energy is the energy we don’t use.' This doesn’t mean we don’t architect for high availability; it just means being more sustainability-conscious in our architectural decisions," Vogels writes.

AWS sustainable design principles and best practices

The new AWS Sustainability Pillar puts a focus on helping organizations learn, measure, and improve their workloads to meet environmental best practices for cloud computing.

The new pillar has several design principles and best practices, like it's five partner pillars. 

The framework’s sustainability design principles include:

  • Understand your impact
  • Establish sustainability goals
  • Maximize utilization
  • Anticipate and adopt new more efficient hardware and software offerings
  • Use managed services
  • Reduce the downstream impact of your cloud workloads

The framework's sustainability best practices range from:

  • Region selection
  • User behavior patterns
  • Software and architecture patterns
  • Data patterns
  • Hardware patterns
  • Development and deployment process  

You can read up on all of the design principles and best practices in the links above.

Is green advice always good advice?

The new Sustainability Pillar will offer guidance based on AWS's own best practices and observations. And much of it seems like obviously good advice.

"With one click of a button, you can scale up. But with that same button, you can also scale down," Vogels said. "Every resource that you’re not using is the greenest resource that you can think of."

But as Stephen points out, some of the points in the new Sustainability Pillar can feel counterintuitive, like saying to back up data only when it would be difficult to recreate

"The question is really whether there is value in backing up the data. Old crash dumps? Probably not. Core customer data? Definitely," he writes. But in some cases, like complex video renders or machine learning models, it would likely be more efficient to store the data rather than recreate it.

Fortunately, AWS says the pillar will be updated going forward as the company gains more insights into building more sustainable applications.

Sustainability questions remain

Whether you’re stoked or skeptical, there are still some questions here.

When will AWS release its carbon footprint tool? How will sustainability efforts impact AWS certification exams going forward? If sustainability is really going to get the spotlight like AWS says it will, it will need to be a part of the cloud learning journey for newcomers who are just starting in their cloud careers.

We'll have to see what 2022 and the years ahead have in store for us — and our access to pizza.

AWS re:Invent 2021 highlights

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