Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) discussions, reporting standards, fora, webinars, blogs and service offerings have mushroomed over the last ~2 years. A lot of this debate centers around the environmental crisis we find ourselves in. Saving the planet was once the domain of idealists, but it has definitely gone mainstream, become fashionable, and even profitable, to be ‘green’. The tech domain hasn’t escaped this trend.
Where the revolutionary potential of technologies such as blockchain and all sorts of coins and tokens are dominating the (web3) debate on one side, on the other side there is a broader conversation around what reckless deployment of these revolutionary technologies at scale would do to our environment. Which in turn spurs innovation of more efficient and effective approaches to said chains, coins and tokens.
Gartner listed just a few tentacles of the ‘Sustainability in computing’ trend as a driver of ESG. And more recently, they issued a framework for sustainable technology as well.
We can safely conclude that sustainability in computing is a thing.
A different kind of trend
Sustainability in computing is a different kind of trend from the ones described in our previous trend-watcher blogs. It stems from the need to resolve an issue, rather than to have “shiny new things”.
There are similarities as well, compared to past blog posts. Once again, we are not identifying a new or recent trend here. As early as in the nineties, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched Energy Star, and many other agencies followed suit with energy labels as well. These voluntary labels were (and really, are) early initiatives to raise consumer awareness that not all equipment and hardware is created equal.
We have also come a long way since the nineties. It is clear that sustainable computing isn’t just about hardware or at the infrastructure level. It’s all in how you do things. How efficient is your code, your algorithm, the use of resources in your datacenter. The consumer has a part to play as well, other than buying sustainably rated equipment. We have come to know add-ons to operating systems to save power when certain resources are not in use. You might know this from the ‘battery life saver settings’ on your laptop.
Wikipedia does a good job at defining green computing more holistically:
“The goals of green computing are (...): reduce the use of hazardous materials, maximize energy efficiency during the product's lifetime, the recyclability or biodegradability of defunct products and factory waste.”
In short, sustainable computing is about minimising waste in, as well as improving the kind of materials used, energy consumed, and closing the loop when equipment is end-of-life. Materials, energy, recycling.
Sustainable computing and the Cloud
The Cloud has sustainability potential. When used in the right way, the Cloud is not only a cost saver for organisations, but also a more sustainable solution due to resource sharing at scale. This beats every company operating their own infrastructure any day of the week.
And nowadays it stretches beyond the infrastructure layer as well: operating systems, software and even components of software can be shared across multiple organisations, securely.
Taking this further, cloud computing provides the basis for further sharing of resources and also data placement at the most efficient location, such as with edge computing. The more organisations move towards Cloud Native applications and therefore share compute, store and bandwidth capacity, the better in terms of efficiencies in energy use, and therefore sustainable computing.
This all sounds great, the planet has been saved and ‘mission accomplished’.
Not quite so fast, though
We have all heard the dazzling stats of how many pictures have been taken over the last year, and how this is X-fold more than all pictures taken up until that point in history. Or data, or blogs written, or any stat that illustrates the information hoarders we have become.
It seems that the better and more efficient we get at storing, processing and sharing information, the greedier we get to do more of it. It is not just more of the same either. New services don’t completely replace old ones, but the take-up is in addition to these old services. Also, with the advent of new technologies, we appear to ‘evolve’ and change our behaviours to quickly offset any efficiency gains with more consumption. IT advances drive economic growth as well, often on the back of these new behaviours which give rise to new business models.
To the point that all our good work to make computing greener, is outperformed by the new energy demands the above dynamics create. And deepens the energy deficit.
Both sides of the equation
As with anything, the sustainability equation as it relates to materials, energy and recycling consists of two sides. There is a problem at the input side as current methods of generating energy or materials are wasteful in terms of the traditional ones, and not efficient in terms of the renewable or modern ones. The output/use side is being incrementally solved, but not at a fast enough rate to outperform increased demand either. Therefore the ‘power deficit’ keeps growing.
Cheap and efficient long-term renewable energy storage seems to be the 'piece de resistance' of renewable energy in many sectors, and it would mean a true revolution for computing (and all those other sectors) if we solve this problem.
It would be a cornerstone of more sustainable computing practices in the future. It would need to be combined with a rethink of our computer-power-greed (is all the data we are creating and computations we are doing with said data really necessary? Should we start disincentivising limitless data creation and wasteful computer power use?), and sustained initiatives to improve efficiency of energy and material (re-)use at all levels of the IT-stack.
Meaning there is an incredible amount of work left to be done, both in the public as well in the private sector.
Cloud integrations: How can we contribute?
It’s safe to say that sustainable computing is not something Harmonizer will be able to solve. But, as the Dutch have said since the 1980s,
‘a cleaner environment starts with you’.
This clearly places responsibility on each and everyone’s shoulders to make the right choices at the micro level, and contribute to the solution. Which might be the only way to ever tackle a problem as large as sustainable computing.
So, talking about ‘us’ then, and what we can contribute. At a strategic level, our roadmap to serverless is a start, for one thing. It will be great for our clients, as it should result in a sustainably affordable monthly subscription fee, and also great for the planet, as our energy use per datapoint processed should go down.
Aside from the way we’ve set up the platform, we should also keep thinking about our ‘how’ from a tactical standpoint:
- How do we recommend using our service to clients?
- Can we make processes more efficient and lean?
- Can we therefore reduce an organisation’s data (processing) footprint, when implementing our service for a client?
Efficient use of data is in Harmonizer’s DNA - we don’t store much, if any, client data at all - nothing more than we need to to operate our service. For example, a lot of our monitoring is done via hashed values instead of the original data.
Then there is our ‘why’, taking it up all the way to the philosophical level. Even though we never consciously labeled ourselves as ‘green’, we are social entrepreneurs at heart. We want to make the world a better place by creating responsible software with craftsmanship. Sustainable computing is inextricably linked to that proposition.
There - we started the conversation. How about you?
Photo by Petr Magera on Unsplash