Cloud computing is notorious for its demands on natural resources, due to the intensive energy and cooling needs of the data centres that host it. While increased efficiency of cloud management has helped mitigate energy use, little could be done about the water wastage involved in cooling the high-powered computer servers in data centres.
Until now, that is. Last week, the world’s largest cloud provider, Amazon Web Services (AWS), announced that it would be “water positive” by 2030, returning water to communities rather than consuming it.
Appropriately called “water+”, the initiative is of particular relevance to South Africa, where AWS has built several data centres in the water-stressed city of Cape Town. These data centres are among the first 20 in the world already using recycled water for cooling. The next step is to return water to the communities in which the facilities operate.
AWS says it uses sustainable water sources, such as recycled water and harvested rainwater, wherever possible, in order to preserve drinking water for communities and the environment.
“Once all of our current replenishment projects are complete, they will return nearly 2.4-billion liters of water each year to communities and the environment,” the company announced this week, during its annual Re:Invent cloud conference in Las Vegas – itself a water-stressed city.
“AWS invests in water replenishment projects in the communities where we operate. These projects expand community water access, availability, and quality by restoring watersheds and bringing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene services to water-stressed communities.”
In Cape Town, it works with the global NGO The Nature Conservancy, a partner in the Greater Cape Town Water Fund’s watershed restoration activities, aimed at removing water-hogging invasive plants from the main catchment areas. So far, the project has cleared more than 47,000 acres, returning 8.9-billion liters per year to the regional water system. That, in turn, has allowed the region’s native fynbos vegetation to recover in cleared areas.
Views of the Misty Cliffs, fynbos and the ocean from Scarborough, Cape Town. © Roshni Lodhia
AWS data centres alone are expected to return nearly 2.4-billion liters of water each year to communities in which they operate globally.
During a keynote address opening Re:Invent last Tuesday, AWS CEO Adam Selipsky said that AWS was constantly innovating to improve water use efficiency.
“We’re leading among cloud providers with an efficiency metric of 0.25 liters of water consumed per kilowatt hour in our data centres. We’re committed to becoming water positive by 2030. That means we will return more water to our communities than we use in direct operations.”
AWS has previously achieved water efficiency partly by using advanced cloud services, such as Internet of Things technologies, to analyse real-time water use and identify and fix leaks, and by eliminating cooling water use in many of its facilities by relying on outside air in cold climates. In Ireland and Sweden, it uses no water to cool its data centres for 95% of the year.
The one response Selipsky did not anticipate was that customers would reduce cloud use.
“There are a lot of really pressing problems and challenges in the world right now. It can be tempting to cut back, slow down. But when it comes to the cloud, many of our customers know that they should be leaning in precisely because of economic uncertainty, not despite it. The cloud is more cost effective.”
He gave the example of global agricultural solutions provider AGCO: it has reduced costs by 78% even while increasing data retrieval.
“So if you’re looking to tighten your belt, the cloud is the place to do it.”
Water stress is not about to go away. But then neither is cloud computing.
“In just a few years half of the world’s population is projected to live in water-stressed areas,” said Selipsky. “So, to ensure all people have access to water, we all need to innovate new ways to help conserve and reuse this precious resource.”
* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee