Rackspace’s CTO takes a broad view of sustainability

Srini Koushik has been passionate about the environment for 35 years and now, as a board member of the nonprofit SustainableIT.org and CTO of cloud services provider Rackspace Technology, he wants to help enterprises achieve sustainability in the cloud.

Two decades ago, as CIO and CTO at Nationwide Insurance, he inspired colleagues to implement what were then referred to as “green initiatives,” such as printing less paper and using more efficient lightbulbs.

But since 2021, at Rackspace, he’s been driving a far more complex and holistic view of environmental, economic and equitable sustainability measures, as both a consumer and a supplier of technology, he says.

In this broader view of sustainability, the environmental component refers to familiar efforts such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economic sustainability is about fair and equal access to employment, broadband networks, and other technology resources, while the third pillar, equitable sustainability, involves removing or reducing bias in the flood of data and algorithms underpinning applications, particularly in emerging generative AI models, he says.

Koushik also serves on the board of directors of SustainableIT.org, which defines standards and promotes best practices for advancing sustainability through technology. Other board members include IT leaders from Morgan Stanley, Allstate, Telefónica Germany, and Campbell Soup Company.  In April 2023, Koushik received one of the organization’s SustainableIT Impact Awards for environmental impact, alongside Choice Hotels’ CIO Brian Kirkland and others.

SustainableIT.org recently released its first set of IT-based environmental, social and governance standards to provide CIOs with precise technical guidance about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy consumption.

The standards, for instance, enable CIOs to determine scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3 emissions levels and report exactly how much energy their data centers are using and how much power their cloud workloads are consuming, Koushik says.

The release of these standards will allow US companies to achieve greater parity with their European counterparts, which have been measuring and reducing their impact on the environment for a longer time.

Without strict reporting guidelines, corporations are sometimes accused of greenwashing or exaggerating more favorable power usage stats and emissions data, he says. “Europe is driving a lot of the standards and wants to make sure that we are pretty accurate in what we’re reporting,” he says.

Think globally, act locally

Koushik is putting all this into practice at Rackspace, too. The company once made most of its money building data centers for enterprises, but digital transformation has turned that business model on its head as it now focuses on offering cloud hosting and private cloud services.

“Internally, we’ve consolidated a lot of our infrastructure and driven it to the cloud in places where we can actually get more green energy, renewable energy,” says Koushik.

In addition, he says, “We leverage serverless wherever possible in our public cloud environment, and for the applications that have not been modernized, we can do fine-tuning on virtual machines in our private cloud environment.”

So-called serverless technologies still rely on servers, of course, but by containerizing workloads, enterprises can abstract away much of the hardware and virtualization management. And as more workloads migrate to the cloud, the management and maintenance of servers are handled by the hyperscalers (AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform), hosters like Rackspace, and SaaS vendors, and is transparent to customers and developers.

While a good number of enterprises still run a smaller number of servers in their own data centers, or use Rackspace private server hosting services, the push to cloud computing is beginning to pay off in terms of sustainability.

Hyperscalers provide tools that allow customers to calculate their impact, and they’ve made some aggressive net zero commitments, Koushik says.

What the bigger cloud providers can do is negotiate better contracts with clean energy providers. “By choosing them, enterprises are almost adopting net zero by proxy,” Koushik says. Rackspace is currently running 60% of its workloads on Google Cloud and 40% of workloads on its private cloud environment. As an informed customer and vendor of private cloud services, Rackspace can purchase more affordable ‘green’ energy from renewable resources in the central US.

In some cases, applying SustainableIT.org principles allows Rackspace to use gear in an on-premise data center and get the same energy benefit as running it on a public cloud, he adds.

In other cases, Rackspace buys functionality from SaaS providers such as Salesforce or ServiceNow as the most efficient and economical solution for a customer because those services are global.

Environmental sustainability a rising concern

Sustainability is not yet the key criterion for data center decision makers, although it’s becoming more important. According to a January 2023 IDC survey of 465 data center decision makers in enterprises and service providers, capacity is the highest priority in all locations and will remain so for two years, followed by the reliability of power and cooling infrastructure, with sustainability currently in fifth place. Still, when decision makers are asked what their criteria will be when choosing a provider within the next two years, sustainability jumps several places into the top three, along with security and compliance.

Sourcing sustainable power is the leading initiative for improving sustainability, according to the IDC survey, but implementing circular economy principles of re-using, refurbishing, and recycling is a growing way to reduce the carbon footprint and the need for additional natural resources.

But climate change is only the first of three chief concerns of IT sustainability, Koushik says.

The pivot to the cloud and SaaS also imposes a responsibility on Rackspace and others to address economic sustainability.

Economic sustainability

While ditching employees with outdated skills and hiring others with newer skillsets can be a cheap way to adapt to changing technologies, investing in retraining existing staff can be a more economically sustainable approach.

Rackspace recognizes the need for specialists such as data scientists for developing generative AI applications, but values the technical depth of existing engineers whose skills must be updated due to the migration away from on-premises data centers to the public cloud. Rackspace, for instance, developed a technical professional training program dubbed TOPs, which trains data center engineers on more relevant cloud technologies or SaaS models required for building next generation applications.

“If you’re moving to an environment where you’re not managing servers anymore, the Linux engineers need a path forward,” Koushik says. “What we must do is continuously train our people. We have some of the best Linux engineers and we can’t leave them behind.”

Equitable sustainability

Some enterprises like Rackspace are trying to eliminate systemic bias that can exist in the underlying data in cloud lakes employed in applications and, increasingly, in generative AI models, particularly as more enterprises start to build their own large language models (LLM), he says.

Koushik notes that generative AI is a rapidly evolving market space, and one Rackspace has leaned into pretty heavily. “We believe in the potential of generative AI and we want to help our customers get there, but we want to help them do it in a responsible and sustainable manner,” he says.

The migration to the cloud gives CIOs and CTOs far more power to instill sustainability throughout global business processes, supply chains, and services, and it’s an opportunity Koushik isn’t taking lightly.

“CIOs have an opportunity to take the leadership position on sustainability because organizations are getting more heavily dependent on technology,” he says. “It’s just a question of choice.”

CIO, Green IT, IT Leadership, Rackspace