The Ethical Cloud: How to evaluate the true cost of your cloud platform

Last edited on January 21, 2020

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    Cloud services abstract away a lot of complexities involved in data center provisioning. Usually, we think of this as a good thing. It’s a huge boon to developer productivity, lowers overhead costs, and allows individual developers and small companies to experiment and grow like never before. But as Rob Reid spoke about at ESCAPE/19, this abstraction obfuscates some darker elements of data center provisioning. Like it or not, cloud computing has real ethical costs attached to it, and due to the “service” part of “cloud services”, we won’t see those costs unless we actively look for them.

    Reid is a principal engineer at LUSH Digital, and his team has been actively looking at those costs for quite some time now. While he doesn’t purport to have all the answers, his talk on what he’s calling “The Ethical Cloud” invites companies to start asking some of the thornier questions, he spoke openly about these abstractions at ESCAPE/19.

    Here are the three dimensions of the ethical aspects of cloud computing according to Rob, and his suggestions on what you can do to start investigating your cloud computing impact.

    How Your Data Centers Impact the Environment Copy Icon

    Cloud services represent about 3% of global carbon emissions. That’s about the same as the aviation industry and around 30% to 40% of that is data center cooling alone. That number, of course, is only going to grow. In 2019, cloud spending was around $200 billion, and by 2022, that number is expected to grow six fold, to about $1.3 trillion.

    While those numbers are pretty scary, if you’re just a small company, it can feel like they have nothing to do with you. If you’re one of the thousands of companies using a major cloud provider, you’re just a drop in the bucket. So what can you do?

    1. Move to the cloudCopy Icon

    Minimize your overprovisioning. The more efficiently your applications run, the less resources they’ll consume and the less power they’ll require.

    If you haven’t done it already, this might necessitate a move to the cloud, or a transition to a public cloud. Virtualization technologies have rendered public cloud providers more efficient than most private clouds. This is one of those nice instances where economic and environmental incentives are aligned: minimizing data center overhead lowers costs, as well as carbon emissions.

    2. Be picky with your cloud providerCopy Icon

    Not all clouds are created equal. We know this when it comes to comparing cloud performance, but the same logic applies to the clouds’ impact on the environment. While there’s no comprehensive report comparing the environmental impact across the top three providers, a bit of research reveals that they do not all have the same ethics when it comes to a commitment to clean energy.

    One unnamed major cloud provider, as Rob notes, have recently scaled up their operations in Virginia by 60% in the last two years. By some calculations, more than 70% of the world’s data flows through Northern Virginia data centers. In order to keep up with this demand, the state is helping build the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline to further aid this growth through fossil fuels. While some cloud computing companies have spoken up against this project (and other fossil-fueled data centers) some have stayed all too silent.

    Here are some resources on how the three major cloud providers view sustainability:

    How Cloud Services Treat Your Data Privacy Copy Icon

    Data privacy laws are constantly changing, and unless understanding these is your full-time job, you likely will not be fully up-to-date. In working with third party cloud providers, we’re trusting them with a lot of data. Cloud providers’ encryption at rest is a link in that chain, and at some points, can be the only link. So what can you do?

    1. Keep stored customer data to a minimumCopy Icon

    One thing every company can do to protect users’ privacy is to keep stored customer data to the absolute minimum. Consider domiciling sensitive data in countries with stricter protection laws like Iceland, which Rob notes is known as the “Switzerland of data.”

    2. Know your cloud provider’s stance on transparencyCopy Icon

    In addition to keeping up with the legal side of data privacy, it’s important to understand how your cloud providers interpret those laws. The three major clouds have different stances on what their role in data privacy should be. For more information, check out each company’s most recent Information Request reports, which reveal how frequently they shared customer data when requested by authorities.

    The Human Cost of Cloud ComputingCopy Icon

    Data centers, and the companies that we use to provision them, all use conflict minerals such as tungsten, tin, and gold. The use of these conflict minerals, by definition, implies that there are real human costs: their profits fund wars.

    So if you’re not a hardware company working to build computers without conflict minerals, what can you do to improve the state of the world? Reid says the beginning is just asking questions. Ask your cloud provider for transparency about their production pipeline, and start to hold them accountable.

    Do your research Copy Icon

    Understand the working conditions, mistreatment and rights violations of people working in the assembly of components. Understand the conditions that people in places like Agbogbloshie, Ghana, are living in---a place which has become so polluted with e-waste that it’s now considered to be more polluted than Chernobyl.

    Next Steps for The Ethical CloudCopy Icon

    The buying team at LUSH has a phrase they live by: “It’s our job to know, and once we know, it’s our responsibility to act.”

    As Rob concluded in his talk, people are suffering because of our demand for the internet. It may not be visible on the surface, or in your day-to-day work, but if you interact with data centers, or cloud services at large, there’s something you can do. Rob asks us to be accountable. It’s not just about the cheapest price. There is no higher power taking on your responsibility for this. Ask the questions so you can know, and once you know, take action.

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