Is software literally eating the world?

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Current affairs
A Google data center in Iowa. Picture courtesy of Google.

Recently it was revealed that Coca Cola produces 3m tonnes of plastic packaging a year, which is equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute. This revelation was part of a global commitment led by the New Plastics Economy to raise awareness of the sheer scale of single-use waste that we are creating.

After decades of relentless production of materials that end up in landfills, we are beginning to take notice of our waste problem. This spans from large corporations to individuals in their homes: in 2017 the recycling rate for UK households was 45.7%. There is an EU target for the UK to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020. When I was a child, there was no recycling collection at all.

As consumers we are becoming wiser and more critical of the provenance of the products that we are buying. We want to know where our food has come from, what kind of processes have been applied to it, and we are willing to pay a premium to support what is good for us and the environment. The Soil Association report that sales of organic produce in the UK steadily increase each year, despite the fact that it is an expensive choice in a tough economic climate.

Increasing numbers of consumers are applying the same environmental and ethical scrutiny to all physical products that they buy. Doing good for the planet is not only expected of a brand; it can be a major selling point. Patagonia blaze a trail in the clothing industry for acting in the best interest of the environment, even if it means paying a premium for their products: compare the £29 cost of an organic cotton t-shirt versus a £2 t-shirt from Primark. Heaven only knows what sins are committed to get the price so low.

That premium Patagonia t-shirt price ensures that you are getting sustainably produced, non-polluting cotton from a controlled supply chain, and supporting a company that will recycle any of your old garments that you buy from them. In the 2017 fiscal year, they repaired 50,295 garments. A UK sibling to Patagonia, Finisterre, hired a full-time wetsuit recycler in 2017 to deal with a material previously thought unrecyclable.

More than ever we see the connection between the physical products that we create and their detrimental effect on the environment. However, we need to look deeper at what else we buy. We consume many invisible products of an unknown provenance.

I am part of an industry that creates them.

The invisible product

I work in the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) industry, which means that we deliver our software via the Internet. Customers subscribe to our product and then access it via their Web browser.

This means that no physical items are manufactured or exchanged, which, superficially, could be used as an argument that we are environmentally friendly. After all, we are certainly not manufacturing 200,000 plastic bottles a minute, nor are we distributing tens of thousands of copies of our software via compact disc in plastic jewel cases.

However, much in the same way that consumers are applying closer scrutiny to how their physical products are made, we need to apply the same scrutiny to how our SaaS products are being created and hosted.

After all, technological progress is a waste problem in itself. The technology industry, and our relentless obsession to own the latest, fastest thing, is creating around 55 million tons of discarded electronics every year. Heaps of old laptops. Stacks and stacks of yesterday’s tablets. If it isn’t fast enough, we don’t care. We bin it as it is no longer fit for purpose.

All of this complicated technology is extremely hard to manufacture, and unsurprisingly, extremely hard to recycle. After all, you can’t just mulch and recreate new smartphones in the same way that you can with paper.

“But,” I hear you cry, “that’s physical technology products. We’re talking about SaaS here!” And you’re right.

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane about how we used to do things before the cloud came along.

Before the future

During the time when cloud providers like Amazon and Azure were not around, we used to run our purchased servers in rented racks in data centers. To those that are just getting into startups and technology, this idea seems bizarre. Buy and physically install servers? Madness!

Yet, what it meant to physically buy, install, maintain, and then, after 4 years or so, send the machine away for dismantling and recycling, was that we had greater control over our supply chain of delivering our service to our users.

If a customer wanted to know what the impact of our platform was on the environment, then we could tell them where we bought our machines from, where they were manufactured and in which country, who installed them, and also where we sent them for recycling after they were out of warranty and replaced. Additionally, if we wanted to probe to find out exactly what our power drawdown was, how the data center sourced that electricity and from which type of energy source, we could.

There was a level of transparency in the close relationship required between technology company, data center and hardware supplier; much in the same way that we like to know which farm our eggs come from, and whether the chickens are free range and live good lives.

The future is now

If you were starting a company now, you’d be mad not to use cloud providers. You don’t need to worry about data center procurement and signing contracts, nor peeling through binders full of hardware specifications to pick out the right machines to order, and certainly not hoofing them out of a truck and wiring them in. You don’t need to worry about fixing them when they break.

The beautiful world of AWS, GCP, Azure and their siblings is such that if I want to run some software that I have created, I just create an account, put in my credit card and click a few buttons. I now have some compute, addressable globally, for as long as I want to pay for it, and the provider looks after the machines for me. Wonderful.

However, given that cloud usage is rising dramatically, one could argue that we are putting all of the responsibility of the environmental supply chain of our businesses into the hands of the cloud providers. I may know the rough location of the AWS data center that my product is running in, but do I know anything about where the machines are procured from? I don’t. Do I know about how energy efficient data centers are? Only as much as I’m told. Do I know much about where the machines go after they’ve broken or have become too slow to keep up with modern demands? Nope.

Economies of scale

It would be unwise to point fingers and say that because we don’t know the secret inner workings of our cloud provider operations that there are decisions being made that are bad for the environment in terms of power consumption and physical waste. The procurement, installation, maintenance, energy usage and eventual recycling of hardware all affect the bottom line of our cloud providers, so we could assume that they are making smart decisions. After all, these companies are run by smart people. If anyone knows how to design and implement an efficient data center operation, it would be Amazon or Google, not me.

The economies of scale would predict that the cloud providers can do a much better job of running data centers than we would individually. Just look at how spot instances give customers a way of using any available spare compute resources at a given time, thus ensuring that less CPU cycles – and hence electricity – goes to waste. Also note how technologies such as Kubernetes have grown out of Google’s effort to most effectively utilize their fleet of machines.

But, in the same way that Patagonia can expose their supply chain details to the market and consumer as an act of doing good, it is concerning that major SaaS companies such as Netflix cannot. Their supply chain is delegated to the cloud provider who we can only assume operates in the best interest of themselves, society, and the environment. As more startups begin and scale up in the cloud, more of our industry is relying on the cloud providers to make the right choices for the planet.

So, tell us about yourself

As of February 2019, the market share of the top 3 cloud providers is as follows:

  • AWS: 32.2%
  • Microsoft Azure: 16.5%
  • Google Cloud: 9.5%

Alibaba account for 4.2% and IBM Cloud 3.6%. The others make up 33% of the total share. I looked on the websites of Amazon, Microsoft and Google to see what they publish about the environmental impact of running their platforms.

AWS report that they have a long term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage. They claim customers can reduce the carbon emissions of running their applications by 88% in AWS compared to doing so themselves on-premise. In January 2018, AWS claimed to have achieved 50% renewable energy usage. They have also completed a number of renewable energy projects, such as the installation of solar farms and wind farms in the US. Information on how AWS procure hardware is limited, since they are now in the business of building their own hardware, which, of course, means protected IP. It was reported that the main driver of rolling their own hardware was cost and reliability. What this means for the environment and recycling, we don’t know.

Azure achieved carbon neutrality in 2014 and claim to “exceed the industry average” for power usage effectiveness. They also claim they are committed to a future of 100% renewable energy. Similar to Amazon, they also build their own hardware, but additionally list efficiency and environmental sustainability as core drivers alongside cost and reliability.

Google make similar statements about renewable energy commitments, and claim to have purchased the most renewable energy globally (to offset usage, rather than power their platform) when compared to other large companies. They also have renewable energy projects in the US, South America and Europe. In 2016, they announced a commitment to achieve zero landfill waste by using hardware as long as possible.

All of this sounds great. But how much can I prove is true?

Who watches the Watchmen?

As an individual browsing through websites and white papers, it is hard to form an objective opinion about how well our large cloud providers are sticking to their commitments. In 2017, Greenpeace published a report on the environmental impact of major technology companies. The scorecard from this report is below.

The scorecard for the largest companies in the Greenpeace “Clicking Clean” report.

Although nearly two years have passed since the report was published, there are some interesting observations:

  • There are a surprising amount of C-F ratings in categories for many of these companies.
  • The rating of AWS doesn’t match the impression that I am given via their website, although they may have improved significantly since the report was published.
  • Google’s own claims seem to match what the report suggests.
  • Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent do not score well at all, which is a concern with China’s booming technology industry.

Intentions versus reality

So who do we believe when it comes to environmental impact of our cloud providers, and hence all of the major technology companies that are running on them? It’s hard to tell. No provider would openly say that they are doing a bad job and that they are doing nothing about it, yet intentions mean nothing without action.

With the technological challenge of providing convenient cloud platforms at scale being extremely hard, and with reliability and cost driving cloud providers to build their own industry-secret hardware, we can only hope that their commitment to a green future is true. We may never be able to see inside the black box.

If we ever do, we may be in for a shock. Many in the UK were shocked to discover that two-thirds of our plastic recycling is shipped abroad to countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. This is in stark contrast to the preconception that our washed milk containers were being just being driven down the road to a recycling plant. It is hard to undo what we create.

Given that we will probably never get a truly transparent view into how the cloud providers source, build, power, maintain and recycle their machines, how can we be sure that we actually are doing the right thing for our planet as we increasingly rely on other companies to run our own?

As creators of technology, we need to ask whether our progress is antagonistic to the place that we call home. As customers of the tech giants, we need to lobby for transparency of our supply chains, and ensure that we’re putting back more into the planet than we’re taking out.

After all, the software is pretty useless without us.

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