Green Software is Event Driven and Carbon Aware, with Kubernetes and KEDA

08 Sep, 2023
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Did you know that data centres emit more carbon than aviation or shipping? And it is not slowing down, with some research forecasting that computing will contribute 14% of global emissions by 2040. Even worse, a significant portion of these emissions is wasted on non-production resources running outside office hours, always having your application scaled out for peak hours. This is not only bad for the planet but also for your cloud bill.

How can we do better? Instead of having a fixed number of application replicas, we should match the scale of our applications to:

  1. Current events, for example, in terms of incoming web requests or messages in a Kafka topic. Sizing your application based on how much work it has alleviates overprovisioning and always-on resources.
  2. The availability of clean energy. The electricity on the data centre’s power grid comes from different sources, such as coal, nuclear, and solar. We should do more when the energy is cleaner, i.e., the carbon intensity is lower to reduce emissions further.

This article shows how we can make our applications greener by
making them event-driven and carbon-aware. We’ll introduce these properties at the level of the Kubernetes cluster using KEDA (Kubernetes Event-Driven Autoscaler) and Microsoft’s Carbon Aware KEDA Operator, so all applications in the cluster can benefit without becoming more complex themselves. All code examples are found in my GitHub repo.

The webshop that wants to become greener

Consider a simple webshop with only two applications: a webserver that serves the website to customers and an ordering system that takes care of all other things. When a customer places an order, the webserver puts a message with all necessary information on a queue and immediately thanks the customer for its purchase. The ordering system consumes these messages asynchronously, checks the warehouse, dispatches the delivery, and then sends a confirmation email to the customer.

Webserver and Ordering System communicate through queue

Even though the number of customers varies throughout the day, both applications are currently deployed with a fixed number of replica pods appropriate for busy moments. Below is a graph with the number of messages in the queue and the ordering system replicas in the cluster. The red line indicates the number of messages on the queue, and blue shows the number of pods.

Graph showing events and number of replicas (base scenario)

For simplicity, we assume that the replicas and messages at a specific y-coordinate would be exactly in balance, i.e., precisely enough replicas for that number of messages. In that case, the area under the blue and red lines relates to the total and useful resource consumption, respectively. The difference is wasted resources.

The webshop takes pride in its sustainable reputation and also wants to cut back on cloud costs. The webshop owner spoke with customers and learned that while the webserver should always be available and fast, it’s okay if the asynchronous email confirmation arrives a bit later.

The webshop owner wants to scale the ordering system based on the queue size and whether clean energy is available. In other words, when carbon intensity is low, and many messages are waiting in the queue, the ordering system can go full speed:

Maximum number of replicas if many events and low carbon intensity

If, on the other hand, either the carbon intensity is high or the number of messages is low, we should balance the number of replicas:

Balanced number of replicas if less events or higher carbon intensity

Let’s explore how we can achieve this with KEDA.

Event-driven scaling of pods

We want to move away from an always-on ordering system with too many replicas. To dynamically scale the ordering system based on the number of messages in the queue, we use KEDA (Kubernetes Event-Driven Autoscaler), a Kubernetes operator that can scale our application based on ‘events’. In our case, ‘events’ refer to the messages on the queue, but many more events are supported. With the KEDA Controller installed in the cluster, we can dynamically scale the ordering system by creating a ScaledObject:

kind: ScaledObject
  name: ordering-system-scaler
    name: ordering-system

  pollingInterval: 5
  cooldownPeriod: 5
  idleReplicaCount: 0
  minReplicaCount: 1
  maxReplicaCount: 10
    failureThreshold: 4
    replicas: 5

    - type: aws-sqs-queue
        name: ordering-system-triggerauth
        queueURL: <AWS-DOMAIN>/000000000000/ordering-queue
        awsEndpoint: <AWS-DOMAIN>
        queueLength: "50"
        awsRegion: "eu-west-1"
        identityOwner: pod

The YAML above consists of roughly three parts:

  1. We must tell the ScaledObject which application we want to scale. This is done through the scaleTargetRef key. In this case, the target ordering-system is the Deployment that manages the ordering system replicas.
  2. Then, we configure how we want to scale the application. minReplicaCount and maxReplicaCount determine the range of scaling, and we can configure many other properties as well.
  3. Finally, we tell which event(s) to scale on in triggers. Here, we defined the AWS SQS Queue trigger and told it to strive for 50 messages in the queue.

The graph from earlier changes as follows:
Graph showing events and number of replicas (event-driven scenario)
The difference in area under both lines is much smaller now, indicating more efficient resource usage.

What I really like about KEDA is that it does not try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, it reuses Kubernetes’ built-in HPA (Horizontal Pod Autoscaler). Since Kubernetes 1.10, the HPA can use external metrics based on External Metrics Servers. KEDA ‘simply’ implements an External Metrics Server that exposes data about the triggers we define in our ScaledObject.

Carbon-aware limits to scaling

With KEDA’s event-driven scaling, our resource consumption already changed drastically. Still, the ordering system does not take into account the current availability of clean energy. If the webshop is busier on moments with less clean energy, we can still emit much more than we would like. Let’s see how we can add carbon-awareness using the Carbon Aware KEDA Operator. This Kubernetes operator limits how far KEDA can scale our consumer based on the carbon-intensity. This operator essentially sets a ceiling for allowed maxReplicas in KEDA’s ScaledObject based on the carbon intensity of the current time, allowing more scaling when carbon intensity is lower. Once the operator is installed, we can configure the scaling limits through a custom resource definition:

kind: CarbonAwareKedaScaler
  name: carbon-aware-ordering-system-scaler
    - carbonIntensityThreshold: 237
      maxReplicas: 10
    - carbonIntensityThreshold: 459
      maxReplicas: 6
    - carbonIntensityThreshold: 570
      maxReplicas: 3

    name: ordering-system-scaler
    namespace: default

    mockCarbonForecast: true               
      name: carbon-intensity
      namespace: kube-system
      key: data

Similar to how the ScaledObject targeted a Deployment through its scaleTargetRef, this CarbonAwareKedaScaler targets a ScaledObject defined in kedaTargetRef. This makes for a neat layered approach where each layer is unaware of the layer above.

The essential part of the YAML definition above is the maxReplicasByCarbonIntensity key, which lets us configure increasingly strict scaling limits based on the availability of clean energy.

The operator retrieves the current carbon intensity from the ConfigMap we define under the carbonIntensityForecastDataSource key, but actually filling the ConfigMap is not something it can do for you. Fortunately, Microsoft created a companion operator called the Carbon Intensity Exporter, which builds on the Green Software Foundations’s CarbonAwareSDK to provide carbon intensity data in the Kubernetes cluster. However, if you just want to play around then you can also set the mockCarbonForecast key to true. The operator will then create a ConfigMap with fake carbon intensity data for testing purposes.

With the Carbon Aware KEDA Operator configured in our cluster, we further decrease our webshop’s carbon emissions by doing more when energy is cleaner:

Graph showing events and number of replicas (event-driven and carbon-aware scenario)

In the second peak, the messages are consumed at a slightly slower pace because carbon intensity is too high at that moment. The customer might need to wait a few more seconds for the confirmation email but likely won’t even notice.


Computing significantly contributes to global carbon emissions, and digitalisation shows no signs of slowing down. We should, therefore, become more efficient in our resource usage. This article shows how we can use KEDA to become more event-driven and carbon-aware and reduce overprovisioning of our applications.

Photo by Lucie Hošová on Unsplash

Bjorn van der Laan
Software engineer at Xebia Software Development

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