Devs are the secret rulers of the World! Are we doing a good job of it?

Data Centres and Planet Earth

Our industry is hugely wealthy and powerful. As techies we may not always feel that way but let’s be honest, we make a living.

The six biggest companies in the world are currently tech businesses and not just in an “every company is a technology company now!” way, we’re talking Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Alibaba and Amazon here. At the same time, normal civil governance appears to be taking a holiday. So, as our World’s current supreme entities, are BigTech malign or benign?

What does good look like Anyway? Diversity is a good idea but compared to what I’m worried about it’s merely a nice to have. I can stomach massive unpleasant cultural change through automation – it’s going to happen, we’ll just have to live with it. I am moderately concerned about killer robots but that’s next year’s problem. I’m not going to harangue BigTech on any of those subjects today.

What I am terrified of right now is data centres.

Data centres – the silent killer


One of the main problems with tackling climate change is apparently “it’s invisible”. That’s nothing. For real social invisibility try the Cloud.

According to a recent report by Mozilla “data centers alone may already have the same CO2 footprint as global air travel”. Bitcoin mining could require the power of Italy by the end of 2018. The Italians aren’t too happy about it and neither am I. The upward trend is crazy. Huawei reckon there’ll be a five-fold increase in DC usage by 2025. That sounds like four new aviation industries.

It’s no coincidence that the list of the six biggest companies on the planet by market capitalisation includes, according to Gartner, the four biggest cloud providers (AWS, Azure, Google, and Alibaba). Data centres are big business. The other two companies on the list (Facebook and Apple) are also two of the largest DC operators, they just don’t hire their servers out to us.

Data centres appear to be the fastest growing large users of energy in the world. But most people don’t know what they are or even that they exist. It’s a fascinating aspect of modern life that one of our biggest industries – server operation – is completely out of sight and mind for almost all the world’s population. You might live next door to a data centre drawing the same power as a modestly-sized city and have no idea of it. Even in tech, our awareness of how much fossil-fueled energy we’re burning to run applications is astonishingly low. But why should we techies be concerned – there is literally nothing we can do about it!

The trivially easy things techies can do about it

Last month, a report from Ex-AWSer Paul Johnston and the Coed:Ethics group covered the options are available for running on sustainable (i.e. carbon neutral) servers. The news was mixed. On the negative side, most servers are running on fossil fuels right now. On the positive side, there are uncontroversial and straightforward steps for getting carbon neutral hosting that any individual in our industry could take.

As the paper points out, there are two clouds that are already 100 per cent carbon neutral: Google and Azure. Google (Alphabet) are the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy and Microsoft are close behind. Facebook and Apple are also carbon neutral for all their own servers, which is a start. This is obviously doable. So, why isn’t everyone doing it?

I wouldn’t have guessed that Google and Azure were so advanced, but they’re currently just bit players in the public Cloud. Amazon is where we need to be looking and it is only at 50 per cent sustainability. However, the good news is there are four public AWS regions that are fully carbon neutral: Dublin, Frankfurt, Montreal and Oregon. So that’s easy. Transition and put new stuff there and you’re clean.

If you operate your own DCs it’s even easier; just move to a renewable electricity tariff. It’s not even more expensive any more.

I pondered earlier if BigTech were malign or benign, but they aren’t dictators. We have a vote – our money. Amazon, in particular, are consumer-driven. Their first principle is “customer obsession”. They’ll progress faster on creating renewable hosting if users ask for it. If we don’t, they won’t. It is our choice. Do we ask or not? It’s no skin off our nose to do so.

It’s not hard being green

You can move your instances to the sustainable regions or site new instances there. If that’s too much effort, just say to your AWS contacts that you want to see a higher renewable mix. If even that is much too much faff then sign our petition and we’ll chase AWS for you. In fact, sign the petition anyway,

Frankly, there is no downside to this, It’s a no brainer. It’s common courtesy to use renewables to power your servers, especially when ordinary folk don’t understand DCs, don’t really comprehend they exist, and so can’t demand better behaviour from us.

We have money in tech. What are we doing if we don’t have time to make the minor changes required to fuel our growth sustainably? It is absolutely fine to say “I’m doing nothing, I’ll leave it to my cloud provider”, but only if you tell your cloud provider that this is what you want. If you say nothing you are very clearly informing them that you don’t care. And if you don’t, why should they?

Oh, and if you’re sitting back preparing to say “yes but the right solution is carbon taxes!” then you are copping out. I have no major issue with carbon taxes (though it’s a bit regressive) but they are clearly miles off and there is not much I can personally do to bring them about. Even if I were a whole government (one day..) I couldn’t pull it off. No government can do this alone – it requires global agreement and, as previously mentioned, normal cooperative governance has gone fishing. Global legislation is an extremely attractive long term hope but don’t get distracted – there are things we can do today.

Yes, running DCs on offset renewable energy isn’t perfect, but what is? Anything that directs a load of money away from fossil fuels and chucks it at renewables surely can’t hurt.

Don’t worry! St Elon will save us!

Climate change is not a silver bullet problem that someone will fix in one superhuman action. I’ve been holding out for fusion since the power ballad but so far it has failed to show up. Perhaps Elon Musk is our streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds but I’m not going to bet my life on it.

We’re going to have to solve this with a load a of lead bullets. We’ll need to make small changes, which don’t have to be particularly painful, all over our lives and industries. Running our servers on renewable (or offset) power is comparatively trivial for individual techies to achieve but has a disproportionately huge effect. It’s not everything but it’s a start.

Forget about becoming a vegan, shooting your pet or even one of your children to be green. That’s a lot of effort and, in our crazy police state, potentially even illegal. Just move your T2s to Dublin or Frankfurt. Mostly importantly, tell AWS why you’re doing it, perhaps they’ll be sufficiently “customer obsessed” to care if we’re all killed in a fireball. Given that Microsoft are one of the heroes of this story so far, anything’s possible.

Anne Currie is a writer, speaker and engineering industry veteran who these days works on the future of devops and the place of dev ethics in the tech industry. She is currently head of tech strategy at Container Solutions. 


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