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What Is GreenOps? Putting a Sustainable Focus on FinOps

FinOps focuses on optimizing cloud spend — but this optimization doesn’t necessarily translate to environmental advantages. Fortunately, today there are organizations that also want to prioritize sustainability in their cloud decision-making.
Sep 22nd, 2023 1:30pm by
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No waves of economic uncertainties can stop the cloud migration stampede. According to the Flexera 2023 State of Cloud Report, only 10% of companies have pulled back on planned cloud spending despite an unstable market. But as droves of companies are running head-first into the cloud, they’re also trying to figure out how to use it as they go.

Enter the discipline and cultural practice, FinOps. Though notoriously hard to define, you can think of FinOps as “maximizing the value of every dollar that you spend on the cloud,” explains Simar Arora, a senior cloud engineer, for Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

At first glance, it would seem FinOps has little to do with carbon emissions — despite the mega-polluter the cloud has become. Remember that data centers and data transmissions are now responsible for 1% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, says the International Energy Agency. Namely, FinOps focuses on optimizing cloud spend — but this optimization doesn’t necessarily translate to environmental advantages. For example, you could very well lower your cloud costs and increase operating efficiency, but increase your emissions in the process.

Fortunately, today there are organizations that also want to prioritize sustainability in their cloud decision-making. This new school of thought is often referred to as GreenOps.

But you won’t find this term everywhere. The FinOps Foundation, for example, a big player in the burgeoning movement, doesn’t use it. Instead, they prefer simply “cloud sustainability” to describe their efforts to “define the intersection point of how carbon metrics get into the FinOps practice,” describes J.R. Storment, the foundation’s executive director.

For teams reluctant to adopt the GreenOps lingo, however, rallying behind a common name (and, thus, a common definition) could go a long way in holding people and organizations accountable, as right now, no one really knows who should step up to the plate. In some organizations, the responsibility of cloud sustainability and carbon metrics falls to the FinOps teams; in others, it’s a whole separate team who needs to collaborate with the cloud decision-makers.

GreenOps, cloud sustainability, carbon metrics … Any way you call it, it’s clear that now is the time for carbon to become another metric for FinOps teams to optimize.

A Dark Cloud Hanging over Sustainability

Why is cloud sustainability approaching the center stage of FinOps?

Incredibly, the carbon footprint of the cloud has now surpassed that of the airline industry, as reported by MIT Press Reader, who says just one data center consumes as much electricity as 50,000 homes. Many factors contribute to the cloud’s negative environmental impact, including a computer’s embodied carbon emissions (i.e., emissions resulting from a computer’s build process) and its operational carbon emissions.

The problem is that “right now, there’s not enough sustainability in the FinOps conversation,” says Roi Ravhon, co-founder and CEO of Finout. “There’s a lot of talk about optimizing rates, etc. But that doesn’t impact emissions in any way.”

According to Ravhon, changes can be made in FinOps practices to improve the sustainability factor — but only if people go out of their way to do so.

For example, costs for Amazon Web Services (AWS) vary from region to region depending on factors like taxes, fiber, price of land, etc. However, not every AWS region has the same polluting ratio. So what is the cheapest and most efficient option in terms of cloud spend may not always be the best choice for the environment. “And that’s why we need to make sustainability, carbon metrics, and the environment — GreenOps — part of the bigger FinOps discussion,” says Ravhon.

While cloud providers aren’t always transparent about their environmental impact, members of the FinOps community are stepping up to help cut through the opacity. Arora, for example, has created Commitments.Cloud, an online “sustainability calculator” to help FinOps practitioners more easily compare different regions and their carbon impact.

Challenges to Integrating GreenOps

Of course, pursuing new environmental initiatives always comes with challenges. And making the choice whether or not to spend more on cloud providers that can help them achieve carbon neutrality isn’t the only thing holding organizations back from being more sustainable.

The biggest challenge, Arora says, is awareness: “Thanks to FinOps practices, people are now more aware of their cloud costs throughout the month. But they’re not getting any information about their carbon impact. And if you don’t know the data, you can’t control it.”

Arora and Ravhon agree that this lack of awareness largely stems from a severe lack of reporting on the cloud providers’ part.

For example, according to AWS’s shared responsibility model of cloud sustainability, “AWS is responsible for the sustainability of the cloud, while AWS customers are responsible for sustainability in the cloud.” In other words, if you opt to run the most inefficient, power-consuming configuration, then that’s on you.

But Ravhon says it’s not that simple — and AWS shouldn’t right off responsibility so easily. “As cloud consumers, we are not the ones who have the information behind the scenes — AWS obstructs everything for us. AWS should not only be responsible for doing the best possible job on reducing their own carbon footprint, but they should also be giving people proper reporting. Because without proper reporting, the best we can do is extrapolate.”

In some ways, the lack of awareness issue and the lack of reporting issue is a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma. To solve the lack of reporting, companies could step up and demand that cloud providers become more transparent. The catch? First, the industry needs to raise awareness and actually get companies to care about cloud sustainability.

“The EU is doing an amazing job leading with carbon quotas,” says Ravhon. “But they’re too small to catalyze change on their own. Basically, we’re waiting for the US government to follow suit. Because once the US market gets into sustainability, things will change.”

Until then, in the absence of reporting requirements, the onus is on companies to prioritize sustainability in their cloud activity. Above all, this requires a cultural shift: “People need to be incentivized to care and use the right kinds of workloads,” adds Arora.

Waiting for the GreenOps Tipping Point

If the future of cloud sustainability appears bleak, Arora advises looking to examples of other tech advancements and the curve of their development, where early adopters led the way and then the main curve eventually followed.

“The same thing happened with electric cars,” Arora points out. “They didn’t enter the mainstream because they were better for the environment; they entered the mainstream because the cost came down.”

And this is what he predicts will happen with cloud sustainability. Right now, the early adopters are stepping forward and championing GreenOps as a part of the FinOps equation. In a few years, others will be able to measure their data, analyze how they reduced their carbon impact and what effect it had on cloud spending and savings, and then follow their lead.

It’s naive to think that most companies will go out of their way (and perhaps even increase their cloud spending) to reduce their carbon footprint. But as more and more early adopters take action, the industry as a whole will eventually reach a tipping point and the masses will follow them into GreenOps — because at that point, they’ll be able to care about the environment and their cost savings at the same time.

Taking Cloud Sustainability Mainstream

Although GreenOps going mainstream may seem a long way away, we can lean into optimism by knowing that the tides are already starting to change a little.

Finout, for instance, is a holistic cloud cost solution that helps FinOps teams manage and reduce spend across cloud providers. In an interview with The New Stack, Ravhon stressed the importance of cloud sustainability to the Finout team and said they intend to add GreenOps capabilities to the platform in the future. Right now, they can help companies allocate their costs, run multiple optimization options, and identify waste so they can make the necessary changes.

Ravhon also asserts that Finout prioritizes partnering with other organizations to make sure they can give consistent reporting, such as The Linux Foundation and The FinOps Foundation, both of which Finout is an official partner.

With over 5,000 participating companies, The FinOps Foundation focuses on creating open source, vendor-neutral best practices and standards. One of their latest initiatives is the FOCUS Project, a technical specification to build and maintain an open standard for cloud cost, usage, and billing data. Already, the industry is turning to the FOCUS Project for help with GreenOps. “People are asking us for a way to provide cloud sustainability and carbon metrics in a standardized manner — the same way that cost data is getting standardized,” reveals Udam Dewaraja, the project’s chairperson. And he says the work is already underway.

Whether you call it GreenOps or cloud sustainability or you’re just keen on considering your organization’s carbon impact, the growing sentiment in the industry is the same: GreenOps is inextricably tied to the future of FinOps. Or as Ravhon puts it: “FinOps is perfectly positioned to be in the center of your organization to understand the financial meaning, the engineering meaning, and now the sustainability meaning of everything.”

The industry may be moving towards GreenOps at a slower pace than some would prefer, but it is moving.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Pragma, The New Stack.
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