The sixth pillar: how AWS is stepping up on climate change

07/02/2022 Viva Lancsweert

How do we use AWS sustainably? That is the question, as well the ultimate overarching pillar of the AWS Well-Architected Framework. Here we’ll offer an overview of the state of sustainability in AWS, and specifically on the sixth pillar AWS has put forth to tackle our ever-increasing energy usage.

Future-proofing the cloud

Sustainability fits in perfectly with the other five pillars of AWS: Operational Excellence, Security, Reliability, Performance Efficiency, and Cost Optimization. But it goes further, uniting a wide range of measures and embodying a truly green economy.

The pillar of sustainability aims to increase growth in employment and income driven by public and private investment into sustainable economic activities, infrastructure and assets: those that reduce carbon emissions and pollutions, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity. For example, when companies reduce the impact on customer devices they ensure that the devices themselves are less prone to replacement. This not only reduces e-waste but makes sense economically as well.

It is absolutely essential that companies get extremely serious about measuring and reducing their impact on the climate. The main question that companies should be asking themselves is: “How can we reduce our company’s cloud carbon footprint?”. Defining and achieving sustainability targets is absolutely urgent and essential.

The sustainability pillar focuses on energy consumption and efficiency, since these are essential in building sustainable infrastructures. The starting point is the shared responsibility model, which regards environmental sustainability as a shared responsibility between customers and AWS:

  • AWS is responsible for optimizing the sustainability of the cloud – delivering efficient, shared infrastructure, water stewardship, and sourcing renewable power.
  • Customers are responsible for sustainability in the cloud – optimizing workloads and resource utilization, and minimizing the total resources deployed for their workloads.

Amazon takes the lead

To attain the nearly impossible goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, everyone must do their part. Fortunately Amazon is taking its responsibility as one of the world’s most influential companies, embracing the enormous role they have to play in inspiring other companies to reduce their climate impact.

Amazon co-founded The Climate Pledge with Global Optimism in 2019 with the goal of creating collective, cross-sector action on the climate crisis. Their conviction is that global businesses are responsible, accountable, and able to act on the climate crisis. The aim is to be fully sustainable by 2025 with a global capacity of 12GW.

We can only meaningfully reduce our impact if we have a metric with which to quantify our environmental impact in the cloud. An exciting sign of Amazon’s commitment to this goal is the announcement of the AWS Customer Carbon Footprint Tool. This tool allows companies to track their usage as well as project their carbon footprint into the future, accounting for AWS’s growing use of renewable energy.

Another door to sustainability lies in specialized hardware: AWS developed Trainium and Inferentia machine learning (ML) chips that are highly optimized for their specific tasks, and that includes their power efficiency. For general computing, Graviton brings similar advantages not just in price, but also concerning resource efficiency. We also shouldn’t underestimate the value of Lambdas not just in building and running code, but also to make the best use of resources like electricity.

Inspiring companies to be more energy-efficient

Studies have shown that AWS’s infrastructure is significantly more energy-efficient than the average global enterprise datacenter. This is because they combine a more energy-efficient server population and much higher server utilization. AWS also works closely with their customers to accelerate mutually shared sustainability goals. With AWS, companies can implement digital innovation, including data migration and application modernization to cloud-native technologies, and to collaborate on artificial intelligence and machine learning use cases.

AWS also seeks out companies to accelerate the realization of their Climate Pledge goal by providing them with reliable, flexible solar and wind energy to power AWS’s operations with 100% renewable energy. In 2021, AWS joined the datacenter industry in Europe to create the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, an industry commitment to proactively lead the transition to a climate-neutral economy.

This commitment led to a self-regulatory initiative developed in cooperation with the European Commission within the framework of the European Green Deal. AWS has committed itself to meeting ambitious goals to facilitate Europe’s essential transition to a greener economy by agreeing to prove energy efficiency with measurable targets, purchase 100% renewable energy, prioritize water conservation, reuse and repair servers, and look for ways to recycle heat.

Lowering the cloud footprint

Cloud providers have a lower carbon footprint and are more energy-efficient than typical on-premises alternatives. This is because they invest in efficient power and cooling technology, operate energy-efficient server populations, and achieve high server utilization rates. Cloud workloads reduce impact by taking advantage of shared resources such as networking, power, cooling, and physical facilities. It is now possible for companies to migrate their cloud workloads to more efficient technologies as they become available and to use cloud-based services to transform their workloads for better sustainability.

AWS’ sustainability pillar explicitates certain design principles when architecting cloud workloads to maximize sustainability and minimize impact such as: Understand your impact, Establish sustainability goals, Maximize utilization, Anticipate and adopt new, more efficient hardware and software offerings, Use managed services, and Reduce the downstream impact of cloud workloads.

AWS also sets forth some best practices for sustainability in the cloud such optimising workload placement as well as the architecture for user, software, data, hardware, and development and deployment patterns to increase energy efficiency. They create opportunities to employ best practices to reduce the environmental impact of a companies’ cloud workload by maximizing utilization and minimizing waste and total resources.

Conclusion: the future looks green

Ethical considerations, regulatory changes, competitive advantages as well as customer, employee, and investor demands are driving organizations to set sustainability targets. CTOs, architects, developers, and operations team members are being urged to seek ways to directly contribute to their organization’s sustainability goals. Using the design principles and best practices supported by AWS services, they can make informed decisions balancing security, cost, performance, reliability, and operational excellence with sustainability outcomes for their AWS Cloud workloads.

Every action we take to reduce resource usage and increase efficiency across our workloads contributes to a reduction in environmental impact and contributes to an organizations’ broader sustainability goals. AWS’ sustainability pillar seeks to minimize the environmental impacts of running cloud workloads based on a shared responsibility model. Though there is still a long way to go, we are beginning to see an increasing sense of responsibility and optimism that will hopefully help us combat climate change and transition to a greener economy and a brighter future.



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