Is Software Eating the World?

We need to ask whether our technological progress is antagonistic to the place that we call home

ItIt was recently revealed that Coca-Cola produces three million tonnes of plastic packaging a year, which is equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute according to the Guardian. 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 we are creating.

After decades of relentless production of materials that end up in landfills, humans 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 U.K. households was 45.7 percent. There is an EU target for the U.K. to recycle at least 50 percent of household waste by 2020. When I was a child, there was no recycling collection at all.

We’re seeing the connection between the physical products that we create and their detrimental effect on the environment.

Increasing numbers of consumers are applying environmental and ethical scrutiny to all physical products they buy. Doing good for the planet is not only expected of a brand; it can be a major selling point. Patagonia blazed a trail in the clothing industry for acting in the best interest of the environment, even if it means paying a premium for its products — compare the cost of one of its organic t-shirts at £29 ($38) versus a £2 ($2.61) t-shirt from Primark. Heaven only knows what sins are committed to get the price so low.

More than ever, we’re seeing the connection between the physical products 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, and I am part of an industry that creates them.

The invisible product

I work in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) industry, which means we deliver software via the internet. Customers subscribe to our product and then access it via their web browser. This means 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.

Technological progress is a waste problem in itself.

However, much in the same way that consumers are more closely scrutinizing how physical products are made, we need to more closely scrutinize 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 each year. Heaps of old laptops. Stacks and stacks of yesterday’s tablets. If it isn’t fast enough, we don’t care. We throw it out it because it is no longer fit for its purpose.

All of this complicated technology is extremely hard to manufacture and unsurprisingly, extremely hard to recycle. You can’t just mulch and recreate new smartphones in the same way that you can recycle and repurpose 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 did things before the cloud came along.

Before the future

Before the time of cloud providers like Amazon and Azure, SaaS companies ran purchased servers in rented racks in data centers. We had to physically buy, install, maintain, and then, after four years or so, send the machine away for dismantling and recycling. But that meant we had greater control over our supply chain of delivering our service to our users.

If a customer wanted to know what impact our platform was having on the environment, we could tell them where we bought our machines from, where they were manufactured, who installed them, and where we sent them for recycling after they were out of warranty and replaced. Additionally, if we wanted 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 people like to know which farm eggs come from and whether the chickens are free range and live good lives.

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 or 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 servers when they break.

Do I know how energy efficient the data centers are? Only as much as I’m told.

The beautiful world of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure, and their siblings is such that if I want to run some software I have created, I just start an account, put in my credit card, and click a few buttons. I now have some computing space available to me and 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 we are putting all the responsibility of the environmental supply chain of our businesses into the hands of cloud providers. I may know the rough location of the AWS data center my product is running in, but do I know anything about where the machines are procured from? I don’t. Do I know how energy efficient the data centers are? Only as much as I’m told. Do I know 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 providers’ 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 one could assume 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 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 computing resources at a given time, thus ensuring that fewer 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 its fleet of machines.

But in the same way Patagonia can expose its 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. Its supply chain is delegated to the cloud provider, who we can only guess operates in the best interest of themselves, society, and the environment. As more startups scale up in the cloud, more of our industry is relying on cloud providers to make the right choices for the planet.

As of February 2019, the market share of the top three cloud providers was AWS with 32.3 percent, Microsoft Azure with 16.5 percent, and Google Cloud with 9.5 percent. Alibaba accounts for 4.2 percent, and IBM Cloud makes up 3.6 percent of the market. The others make up the near 34 percent remaining of the total share.

AWS says that it has a long-term commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage and says it reached 50 percent renewable energy usage last January. The company asserts customers can reduce the carbon emissions of running their applications by 88 percent in AWS compared with doing so themselves on the premises. Information on how AWS procures hardware is limited since it is now in the business of building its own hardware, which, of course, means protected IP. It was reported that the main driver for AWS to make its own hardware was cost and reliability. What this means for the environment and recycling, we don’t know.

We can only hope that their commitment to a green future is true.

Azure achieved carbon neutrality in 2014 and claims to “exceed the industry average” for power usage effectiveness. It also says it is committed to a future of 100% renewable energy. Similar to Amazon, Azure builds its own hardware but additionally lists efficiency and environmental sustainability as core drivers alongside cost and reliability.

Google makes similar statements about renewable energy commitments and says it has purchased the most renewable energy globally (to offset usage rather than power its platform) when compared with other large companies. It also has renewable energy projects in the U.S., South America, and Europe. In 2016, Google 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 large cloud providers are sticking to their commitments. In 2017, Greenpeace published a report on the environmental impact of major technology companies. Here’s the scorecard from the report:

The scorecard for the largest companies in the Greenpeace “Clicking Clean” report. Source: Greenpeace/CC BY 2.0

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 I am given via its website, although it may have improved significantly since the report was published.
  • Google’s 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 the environmental impact of our cloud providers and, hence, all the major technology companies that are running on them? It’s hard to tell. No provider would openly say they are doing a bad job and 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 U.K. were surprised 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 driven down the road to a recycling plant. It is hard to undo what we create. And recent reports indicating that China has begun to refuse shipments of recyclables from Western countries will only add to that challenge.

Given that we will probably never get a truly transparent view into how cloud providers source, build, power, maintain, and recycle their machines, how can we be sure 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 we call home. As customers of the tech giants, we need to lobby for transparency of our supply chains and ensure we’re putting back more into the planet than we’re taking out.

After all, the software is pretty useless without us.

VP Engineering @brandwatch. Writing things that interest me. Hopefully they'll interest you as well.

Sign up for Pattern Matching

By OneZero

A newsletter that puts the week's most compelling tech stories in context, by OneZero senior writer Will Oremus. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

The undercurrents of the future. A publication from Medium about technology and people.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store