Ask an Expert – Sustainability

In this first edition of Ask an Expert, we chat with Margaret O’Toole, Worldwide Tech Leader – Environmental Sustainability and Joseph Beer, Worldwide Tech Leader – Power and Utilities about sustainability solutions and tools to implement sustainability practices into IT design.

When putting together an AWS architecture to solve business problems specifically for sustainability-focused customers, what are some of the considerations?

A core idea of sustainability comes down to efficiency: how can we do the most work with the fewest number of resources? In this case, you want efficiency when you design and build the solution and also when you apply and operate it.

In broad strokes, there are two main things to consider. First, you want to optimize technology usage to reduce impact. Second, you want to find and use the best mix of technology to support sustainability. These objectives must also delight your customers, constituents, and stakeholders as you meet your business objectives in the most cost effective and expeditious way possible.

However, to be successful in combining technology and sustainability, you must consider the culture change of the sustainability transformation. Sustainability must become part of each person’s job function. When it comes to responsibility around sustainability at AWS, we think about it through two lenses.

First, we have the sustainability OF the AWS Cloud, which is our responsibility at AWS. This covers the work we do around purchasing renewable energy, operating efficiently, reducing water consumption in the data centers, and so on. There is more information on sustainability of the AWS Cloud on our sustainability page.

Then, there’s sustainability IN the cloud, which focuses on customers and their AWS usage. This is again focused on efficiency, mostly how to optimize existing patterns of user consumption, data access, software and development patterns, and hardware utilization.

In a related but slightly different vein, we also talk about sustainability THROUGH the cloud. This is how our customers use AWS to work on sustainability projects that help them meet their sustainability goals. This can include anything from carbon tracking or accounting to route optimization for fleets to using machine learning (ML) to reduce packaging and anything in between.

What are the general architecture pattern trends for sustainability in the cloud?

Solutions designed with sustainability in mind aim to be highly efficient. An architect wanting to optimize for sustainability looks for opportunities within user patterns, software patterns, development/test patterns, hardware patterns, and data patterns.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to optimize for sustainability, but the core themes are maximizing utilization and reducing waste or duplication. Most customers start with relatively easy things to accomplish. These typically include things like using the AWS Instance Scheduler to turn off compute when it will not be used or comparing cost and utilization reports to find hot spots to reduce impact.

Another way to optimize for sustainability is to incorporate AWS managed services as much as possible (many of these are also serverless). AMS not only increases the speed and efficiency of your design and build time and lower your overhead to run, but they also include automatic scaling as part of the service, which increases compute efficiency. Where AMS is not applicable, you can often configure automatic scaling into the solutions themselves. Automate everything, including your continuous integration and continuous delivery/deployment (CI/CD) code pipeline, data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI)/ML pipelines, and infrastructure builds where you are not using AMS.

And finally, include ongoing AWS Well-Architected reviews and continuously review and optimize your usage of AMS and the size and mix of your compute and storage in your standard operating procedures.

What are the key AWS-based sustainability solutions you are seeing customers ask for across industries and unique to specific industries?

Almost all industries have a set of shared challenges. This generally includes things like facilities or building management, design or optimization, and carbon tracking/footprinting. To help with this, customers must first understand the impact of their facilities, operations, or supply chain. Many customers use AWS services for ingestion, aggregation, and transformation of their real-world data. Once the data is collected and customers understand their relative impact, this data can be used to form models, which act as the basis for optimization. Technologies such as AWS IoT Core, Amazon Managed Blockchain, and AWS Lake Formation are crucial here.

For industries like power and utilities, there are more targeted solutions. Many of these are aimed at supporting the transition to electric vehicles (EVs). Smart EV charging, for example, uses the AWS Cloud and AI/ML to lessen the aggregate impact to the grid that may occur because of EV charging peaks and ramp ups. This helps avoid requiring natural gas at peak times. Amazon Forecast, a fully managed service that delivers highly accurate forecasts, can be useful in the case of short-term electric load forecasting. Grid voltage optimization is another solution that allows utilities to forecast usage requests and more accurately provide the desired voltage to their customers.

Within supply chains, customers use AWS to support traceability and carbon dashboarding to nudge suppliers toward greener energy. Customers commonly look for ways to track and trace throughout their supply chains, either to measure and reduce scope 3 emissions or to optimize their logistics network.

What’s your outlook for sustainability, and what role will the cloud play in future development efforts?

The cloud is critical to solving sustainability challenges that businesses and governments are being challenged with right now. It gives you the flexibility to use resources only when you need them, coupled with immense computing power. Thus, the cloud will be an essential tool in solving many data challenges like reporting and measuring and predicting and analyzing trends.

Migration to the cloud is essential to optimizing workloads and handling massive amounts of data. We can see this directly in how Boom used AWS HPC to support the creation of the world’s fastest and most sustainable aircraft. Additionally, FLSmidth is pursuing sustainable, technology-driven productivity under MissionZero. This initiative is working to achieve zero emissions and zero waste in cement production and mining by 2030 with the help of AWS high performance computing (HPC).

Do you see different trends in sustainability in the cloud versus on-premises?

The usage pattern is different. With the cloud you can use what you want, whenever you want, which allows for customers to drive up a high utilization. This type of efficiency is critical. It’s why 451 Research found that the same task can be completed on AWS with an 88% lower carbon footprint compared to the average surveyed US enterprise data center.

The cloud offers technology that wouldn’t be available on premises, such as large GPU-backed instances capable of processing huge amounts of data in hours that would take weeks on premises. It can also ingest massive streams of data from energy- and resource-consuming and producing assets to optimize their performance and environmental impact in near-real-time.

With the cloud, you have the flexibility and the power to move quickly through research and development to solve sustainability challenges. You can accelerate the development process of new ideas and solutions, which will be essential for the transformation to a carbon neutral, climate positive economy.

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