Google's new cloud computing tool helps you pick the greenest data centers

The search giant is encouraging customers to pick cloud regions that have a lower carbon footprint.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

The Google Cloud region picker automatically recommends a cloud region based on three factors: carbon footprint, cost and latency.    

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In another bid to make cloud computing eco-friendlier, Google has created a new tool to push customers who are picking their next cloud region towards choosing infrastructure that is more sustainable.  

When users browse through their options to manage cloud resources, Google will flag regions that have the lowest carbon impact highlighted with a leaf symbol and a "Lowest CO2" label. 

The new feature is already appearing as part of the location selector inside Cloud Console, which lets Google's customers manage the different elements that power cloud applications, ranging from bills to databases through cloud regions. 

SEE: IT Data Center Green Energy Policy (TechRepublic Premium)

To earn a green badge of honor, a given cloud region will need to achieve a Carbon Free Energy Percentage (CFE%) of at least 75%, which means that on average, renewable energy is used three-quarters of the time to power the data centers in the area.  

Where information about the CFE% is not available, the region will instead have to show a low grid carbon intensity, which corresponds to the average emissions generated by the local grid when it is necessary to use fossil fuel energy. This can vary greatly from one region to the other, and has a direct impact on the sustainability of data centers in the area.

Earlier this year, the advertising-to-cloud giant released a dataset containing the hourly CFE% and grid carbon intensity for the majority of its regions, to reflect the average mix of carbon-free and fossil-fuel energy that is used to power its data centers in different cloud regions.  

The CFE% is calculated based on the amount of carbon-free energy produced on the local grid, as well as the amount of renewable energy that can be attributed to purchases made by Google. A high CFE%, therefore, is indicative of a region running on green power for more time. The discrepancies between different regions are striking: Singapore, for instance, scores the lowest rating at 3%, while Oregon's CFE% stands at 89%. 

The CFE% is a key metric to hold Google accountable to its goal of running the business on carbon-free energy everywhere and at all times by 2030

Since 2017, Google has claimed that it has matched 100% of its global electricity consumption with solar and energy. The company effectively compensates for its overall consumption of electricity with the purchase of the same amount of power from carbon-free sources anywhere around the world. This is different, however, to running its data centers on renewable power at every hour of every day.   

By looking at how much Google's data centers are fed renewable energy at every hour of every day, the CFE% is, therefore, a first step to understand the company's cloud carbon footprint in real time.    

The next challenge, according to Google, consists of incorporating this new data into the decisions made by business leaders when picking their next cloud region. The company started experimenting with displaying the information into the Cloud Console, and found that users who were exposed to the enhanced region picker were 19% more likely to select a "low carbon" region for their cloud services. 

"These results show that by displaying carbon information in context of when you make the decision of picking a region, we are helping you make more sustainable decisions," said Steren Giannini, product manager at Google Cloud

The new feature comes on top of another tool that Google released earlier this year to steer customers towards greener choices. Called the Google Cloud region picker, the feature automatically recommends a cloud region based on three factors that users can weigh from "not important" to "important": carbon footprint, cost and latency.   

This means that customers can check where to host their applications to lower their impact on the environment, by defining the "carbon footprint" factor as "important"; but the tool also takes into consideration other key factors for business leaders, such as the price of services in different areas, as well as the physical distance between the customer's end users and the region.  

For example, when looking for a low-carbon-footprint, low-cost and low-latency region for end users based in the US, the region picker recommends hosting applications in Google's US-West1 region in Oregon, where carbon-free energy is used an average 89% of the time and services are priced at $0.021811 / vCPU-hour.  

Google hopes that the region picker will further help cloud customers understand how the CFE% works and whether it can be included in business choices.   

SEE: Cloud computing: Microsoft sets out new data storage options for European customers

Up to nine in 10 global IT leaders plan to or currently report on sustainability metrics, according to the search giant's own research, and a quarter of those have accelerated emission reduction projects in the past year.  

Over 50 Google Cloud customers have re-evaluated their IT estates in the past year to consider their carbon impact. For example, IT services company SADA Systems has re-designed its cloud strategy based on the CFE% of different regions.  

Google's efforts in a green cloud are not unparalleled. Microsoft is also working on new approaches to reduce the company's carbon footprint, while Amazon is aiming for 100% renewable energy by 2030. For Stuart Adler, assistant professor at the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington, this shows that there is reason to be optimistic about the future of cloud.  

"If we look at one sector that can have a huge impact and has the will to do it and the resources to put into doing it, it is the cloud business," Adler tells ZDNet. "That's where my optimism comes from."  

Strong commitments, however, will have to be matched by heavy investments into new technologies to ensure that a green cloud market can emerge, according to Adler. There remain many hurdles in the way, and to meet their objectives, cloud giants will have to double down on innovation. 

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