THE BLOG

How Green Is Your Cloud? Why Providers Should Lead on Transparency

05/21/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

After joining The Huffington Post Ops team, I'm finally in a position to speak openly about what I do at work. This is an empowering change after working for a company that is very bound by Non-Disclosure Agreements. That company is doing great things that I STILL can't talk about and it's just the nature of the business they do, not some kind of nefarious secrecy. It's becoming a pretty widely accepted concept that Transparency is essential to doing business ethically. It was the topic of my first Business Practices training as a new employee. How fitting that it is also the topic of my first blog post for HuffPost! I'm fortunate to work for a top-ranked news site and staying in line with my core values, I am encouraged to share information freely.

The Huffington Post exists solely on the Internet and the Internet is a Big Bad source of pollution and environmental destruction.1 There, I said it. The truth is that a pattern of infinite growth is unsustainable on a planet with finite resources. While greenwashing puts a trendy spin on small changes we can make as individuals, "green capitalism" doesn't have a lot of room for holding large corporations accountable for the role they play in depleting resources and causing irreparable damage. The only way to do this is to make transparency regarding environmental impact a requirement for companies to stay competitive. HuffPost has a responsibility to be transparent about our efforts and we, as a media company, can (and do) bring public attention to these issues and highlight available solutions.

In keeping with the spirit of transparency, I looked forward to publishing any data I received regarding the energy consumption and carbon footprint of Huffington Post's infrastructure. To a certain extent, we can only be as transparent as our vendors. Our infrastructure is 100% cloud-based (as of last year) and we use two main cloud providers, Akamai and Amazon Web Services (AWS). While both companies have recently made moves towards running a cleaner cloud2, there is still a long way to go towards true sustainability and transparency about their efforts.

I was unable to get access to any quantitative data due to the policies of our cloud providers. Although Akamai provides a certain level of transparency3, they did not answer my repeated requests for carbon footprint data. My inquiry to Amazon Web Services was met with the following response:

"Unfortunately we do not release this information to our customers. We are unable to provide any statistics on energy consumption for our Datacenters."

AWS is much more transparent in their cost reporting, tracking every transaction of data as a line item. Why not take it a step further and report energy usage with similar detail?

HuffPost has improved our energy footprint by moving out of dedicated corporate data centers that have massive waste in energy and equipment overhead. Energy savings are built into the way cloud services and their data centers are designed. In a typical data center, there are rows of racks with varying equipment running continuously. This requires cooling the entire facility to meet the needs of the most sensitive hardware. The equipment and cooling needs in a cloud data center are constant and can be precisely engineered, down to known airflow patterns to optimize energy usage. In this way, companies like Akamai and AWS have already done the hard work of setting the bar for efficiency.

The Huffington Post is committed to reducing our environmental impact and carbon footprint. We are actively moving towards using AWS's carbon neutral regions as much as possible. By the end of the month, we will have migrated 5 more of our systems to carbon neutral regions and plan to add others over the next year. By the end of 2016, our goal is to have 50% of our AWS infrastructure in carbon neutral regions. Since cloud servers are virtual and share physical hardware, they can be created and destroyed in minutes according to demand. Our systems are architected to take advantage of this flexibility. Because our infrastructure provisioning and application deployment are automated, we can easily scale from 3 or 4 servers to 3 or 4 hundred in minutes if necessary. This allows us to reduce our use of energy hogging resources to what is needed to handle our traffic at any given time. We are constantly fine tuning our infrastructure to improve efficiency and will increase our use of dynamic scaling technologies over the next year.

Once we, as a society, become aware of the consequences of funding corporations operating on non-renewable resources, there is only one intelligent choice: to take action. Corporations are the largest consumers of cloud services so companies like AWS are often sheltered from the demands of the individual consumer. That's why it is critical that we, as individuals within corporations, use our decision making power to require true transparency. It's not enough for providers like Akamai and AWS to be the best solutions for our technical needs. It is time for them to prove themselves as leaders in reducing the environmental impact of big business. So Akamai, I challenge you to provide HuffPost with the data you claim to share openly. AWS, I insist you set a new industry standard by publishing detailed data with regard to energy usage. We've done our part by using solutions we know to be more efficient; now do your part by providing the data necessary to track and report our progress.

1. Data centers currently use 3% of global electricity and produce 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Source: http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2014/12/17/undertaking-challenge-reduce-data-center-carbon-footprint

2. Amazon recently joined the American Council on Renewable Energy and is a partner in the creation of a 150 MW wind farm which will support current and future cloud infrastructure. Their statement regarding sustainability is publicly available here. Akamai has signed the Climate Declaration and has taken action to move some of their facilities in order to increase the percentage of renewable energy they use. Their full policy is available here.
3. "Akamai continues to provide detailed submissions through the Carbon Disclosure Project, and is now reporting its network's use of renewable energy by region of operation. Akamai will also provide to its customers a monthly carbon footprint associated with content delivery through the Akamai network servers. Akamai provides the results of its annual sustainability survey back to its vendor network, providing a benchmark to assist data center operators to understand how well they are performing in relationship both to their customers' expectations, and to the competition."
Source: http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/global/usa/planet3/pdfs/clickingclean.pdf