The AWS Well-Architected sustainability pillar: why it matters

Learn why Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) matters for enterprises and how it can be achieved with AWS’ Well-Architected sustainability pillar.

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Edward Pearson, Cloud Professional Services Organization


07 Sep 2022

The AWS Well-Architected sustainability pillar: why it matters

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As Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors take on greater significance for enterprises, every business area needs to step up.

AWS recently made it easier to align cloud with ESG goals by adding a sustainability pillar to its Well-Architected Framework. This post looks at why that matters and what it means for cloud professionals and CTOs.

Cloud and carbon emissions

All digital activity generates carbon, largely through the electricity used to store and transfer data. Estimates vary, but according to Science Direct, IT’s share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be as high as 2.1-3.9%. To put that into perspective, around 2.4% of global GHG emissions are attributed to aviation.

Cloud computing is generally thought to generate less carbon than storing data on premise, and several vendors source at least some of their energy from renewables. But it still results in emissions. In fact, public cloud use comes under the ‘scope three’ emissions of the GHG Protocol. (Find out more about the three scopes of emission.)

So, as enterprises look to act on climate pledges and ESG goals, cloud use is one area that demands attention. Gartner predicts that by 2025 the carbon emissions of hyperscale cloud services will be a top three criterion in cloud purchase decisions. It also says providers will develop tools for businesses to calculate and reduce emissions through effective use of cloud services.

However, as with any activity geared towards sustainability, there is great complexity involved. Achieving measurable, meaningful change is hard, and improvements in one area may have negative repercussions elsewhere. There is ambiguity to cut through, trade-offs to be made and much learning to be done. Nevertheless, it’s important to find somewhere to start and to keep driving progress.

The sustainability pillar of AWS’ Well-Architected Framework offers valuable guidance to get the sustainable cloud journey underway. It enables organizations to start making better choices which reduce resource use throughout the workload lifecycle.

The Well-Architected sustainability pillar

AWS announced the launch of its sustainability pillar at re:Invent in December 2021. It enables CTOs, architects, developers and operations team members to review and fine-tune architectures with sustainability in mind. In this way they can make a positive contribution to wider organizational sustainability targets.

Well-Architected Reviews involving the sustainability pillar reveal the energy consumption and environmental impact of cloud workloads. After a review, the Well-Architected Tool generates an improvement plan with actionable recommendations to increase efficiency. Considering these recommendations alongside those related to the other pillars – security, cost, performance, reliability and operational excellence – enables informed and balanced decision-making.

Cloud modernization and sustainability

Applying the sustainability pillar to cloud workloads offers new insights surrounding the environmental impact of the various services used. Armed with this knowledge, it’s possible to apply design principles and adopt best practices that reduce these impacts.

AWS outlines various best practices and design principles to aid this activity in a dedicated whitepaper for the sustainability pillar.

Many of the steps that can improve sustainability align with best practices related to the other Well-Architected pillars. They are proven approaches associated with the modernization of workloads for better cloud outcomes.

Sustainable design principles

AWS outlines six cloud architecture design principles to improve the environmental credentials of workloads, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Understand your impact – measure the current impact and model the future impact of individual workloads. Establish key performance indicators to aid the evaluation of progress over time.
  • Establish sustainability goals – set long-term aims such as reducing compute and storage resources required per transaction. Architect workloads so that growth results in reduced impact intensity against specific units (e.g. per user or per transaction).
  • Maximize utilization – right-size workloads and implement efficient design to ensure high utilization and maximum energy efficiency of underlying hardware.
  • Anticipate and adopt new, more efficient hardware and software offerings – support the upstream improvements of partners and suppliers to realize sustainability benefits for your own cloud workloads. Design for flexibility to allow rapid adoption of new, more efficient technologies.
  • Use managed services – sharing services helps maximize resource utilization, which reduces the amount of infrastructure needed to support cloud workloads. Some services ensure you use ‘just enough’ resources, like Amazon EC2 Auto Scaling which adjusts storage capacity to meet demand.
  • Reduce downstream impact of cloud workloads – this can be achieved through measures such as eliminating the need for users to upgrade devices to use your services.

Best practices to reduce resource use

AWS’ recommended best practices for sustainability in the cloud are detailed and extensive. They cover everything from data, hardware, software and architecture patterns to user behavior patterns, region selection and development/deployment processes. AWS suggests that organizations encourage team members to continually experiment with sustainability improvements as they develop functional requirements.

The implementation of some of the recommendations requires advanced cloud engineering capabilities. For instance, once you’ve identified application components that consume the most resources, the code within them can be optimized to minimize resource use while maximizing performance. Similarly, when you understand how data is used within a workload, technologies can be selected to minimize data processing and storage requirements. This is likely to involve specialist database expertise to manage indexes and ensure their design supports efficient query execution.

Another practical way to improve sustainability is to make better use of build environments. Automation and infrastructure as code can be used to bring pre-production environments up when needed, and take them down when they’re not. Periods of availability can be scheduled to coincide with the working hours of the development team. Hibernating instances when they’re not needed is also an effective way to optimize resource use.

Sustainability as a strategic priority

Well-Architected Reviews focused on the sustainability pillar drive meaningful progress towards more environmentally friendly use of cloud. This contributes to wider organizational strategies for sustainability as well as ESG goals. What’s more, when it comes to cloud services, sustainability is often synonymous with cost-efficiency. When you derive greater value from cloud resources, and use fewer of them, it translates into direct cost savings. In the coming months, we’re expecting many enterprises to take advantage of this, using the sustainability pillar to shape their cloud modernization agenda.


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