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Enterprise architecture and the sustainability puzzle

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(Image credit: Image Credit: Moon Light PhotoStudio / Shutterstock)

A recent article from the World Economic Forum outlined how 4.6 billion people use the internet every day but underneath the servers that host all this connectivity and data produce huge amounts of carbon emissions. As we increasingly rely on the internet to process, use, and store ever more information, the environmental impact of this vast network of digital infrastructure is only set to increase in the future. 

Research estimates that by 2025, the IT industry could use 20 percent of all electricity produced and emit up to 5.5 percent of the world’s carbon emissions - that’s more than most countries’ total emissions bar China, India, and the US. The IT industry (either surprisingly, or not) therefore has potential for significant climate change impact if not carefully managed. With carbon dioxide emissions forecasted to jump in 2021 by the second-largest annual increase in history, governments and organizations are now looking for paths to dramatically reduce this threat. We need to find new ways to make the IT industry more sustainable as a result.

Aligning enterprise architecture to UN sustainable development goals

Digital transformation is central to many strategic plans, yet too often than not, organizations are rapidly adopting new technologies without necessarily assessing the overall impact in terms of duplication and redundancy with existing systems. Whether this be AI, Machine Learning, Cognitive Computing or similar, they are often implemented without any context as to how they will actually address real problems and have a positive impact. What’s needed is a more integrated and holistic thinking towards digital transformation. 

When it comes to revolutionizing digital infrastructure, the opportunity to increase sustainability and lower emissions lies directly with Enterprise Architecture (EA) teams and related disciplines. In short, the purpose of these teams is to create sustainable organizations delivering business objectives supported by modern digital platforms. This integrated perspective enables business and IT executives to quickly develop an understanding of where change is required and the impact this will have.

So as we look to achieve the United Nations’ goals for sustainable development, EA’s overall targets should therefore include sustainable IT practices. A particular goal EA should help organizations achieve includes goal 9, which highlights the need to ‘build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.’ Striving to achieve this goal won’t be a simple fix, but should certainly be seen as an opportunity for a profound, systemic shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet.

Progress has no doubt been slow, and largely disrupted by the fight against Covid-19, raising the prospect that such sustainability targets will not be met in the near future. Nevertheless, this impending failure has placed more pressure on national governments and enterprises to adopt new approaches within their business plans. 

This is where EA teams can play a critical role in enabling sustainable technology roadmaps by mapping out the most effective and efficient path to reach a desired future state. If a government develops a new digital platform for energy management, for example, then they could then link this to existing technology roadmaps to leverage existing infrastructure for deploying and managing this new application. Ultimately, this streamlined approach helps enterprises in achieving sustainable development objectives and reducing carbon emissions. 

Now, more than ever, organizations have a corporate responsibility to align business objectives and sustainability requirements. EA is the centerpiece to bring these workstreams together to consolidate, moderate, improve and report both internally and to all stakeholders.

An interconnected global challenge

Data centers represent an ever-expanding proportion of IT energy consumption. These vast buildings require significant power and cooling infrastructure to operate, and are typically linked to the local electricity grid and multiple power generation sources. According to Greenpeace, only about 20 percent of the electricity used in the world’s data centers is so far renewable, with 80 percent of the power still coming from fossil fuels. Large industry players such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud typically leverage ‘Hyperscale’ data centers containing more than 5,000 servers which alone host 5.8 percent of all sites on the internet. 

While the data center industry has been trying to reduce environmental impact, the greater opportunity is the impact of Enterprise Architecture teams to influence what is processed, managed and stored in the first instance. For example, with the Business Motivation Model (BMM), organizations can determine the questions they will need to answer to lower emissions and reduce carbon footprints, and can then create an operating model which details the structures needed to achieve the outcomes. 

Essentially, leveraging this model allows architects to design a solution by identifying the people and processes they need and establish how they can feed into sustainability initiatives. This is because these enterprises are already aware of EA principles, and the potential that comes with a data-driven strategy in terms of operational performance and improved resilience. In short, utilizing EA to revolutionize IT processes brings immense opportunities in terms of both reduced carbon footprint and operational costs. 

Architecting a sustainable future 

As the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals come ever closer, both governments and enterprises can leverage EA teams to better align their digital roadmaps and understand the wider impacts of potential initiatives. The opportunity to take action is now to find a sustainable path to transforming your digital infrastructure that is better for profit, people and the planet.

Michael D’Onofrio, CEO, Orbus Software

Michael D’Onofrio, CEO of Orbus Software.