Last month, WEKA announced a scheme to plant 20,000 trees in 2023 and a further ten trees for every petabyte of software licence sold by the company. In 2022, Scality implemented a similar scheme, planting 14,000 trees. Should this kind of environmental altruism be the responsibility of all technology companies, or is this just an attempt at greenwashing?
Back in October 2022, we wrote an article looking at sustainability and the efforts of three storage vendors, namely Pure Storage, NetApp and VAST Data. In the discussion (which also included a reference to WEKA), we covered the environmental topics that are most obvious to visualise, specifically the consumption of physical resources.
When we see pictures of a landfill containing thousands of discarded electronic devices, it’s easy to understand the impact we’re having on the planet. However, the effect of software is much more nuanced.
As that October article highlights, software can be efficient or inefficient as a consequence of the execution mode (compiled or interpreted), the language chosen (C/C++ will be more efficient than Python) and, of course, the skills of the coder. If you’re writing an operating system that will execute billions of lines of code a day, then efficiency is a crucial metric with which to measure the sustainability of your platform. Someone writing a script that runs a few thousand times can probably get by in Python, especially as the coding process will be more straightforward.
Sustainable AI Initiative
As part of what WEKA calls its “sustainable AI initiative”, the company highlights the amount of energy consumed by data centres but also the relative inefficiency of AI training and inference. WEKA claims that due to delays in data throughput, GPUs can be idle 70% of the time, making the comparison to sitting in a traffic jam in a vehicle that continues to produce emissions (but goes nowhere).
We can see where this discussion is headed – use a more efficient and highly-performing data platform, and your guilt will be assuaged as you put those GPUs to better use…
Company vs Product
We mentioned Scality at the top of this article, as the company had also started a process of tree planting. In this instance (and as part of a broader initiative), the aim is to reduce Scality’s impact on the planet rather than the impact caused by using its products.
This is a subtle but essential difference. Arguably, every company should, in some way, be working to reduce the environmental impact that occurs from just being in business, with larger organisations doing more. Big companies should be trying harder, as they are likely to incur a greater use of resources. Exactly how those goals are achieved is a delicate balance between the cost implications and the effect on the company image.
Where Scality is simply looking to be a better citizen, WEKA is more focused on the implications of adopting its products. The company is implying that more widespread use of its technology will consume more resources and so require greater offsetting (ten trees per petabyte, as we discussed).
In the UK, any manufacturer that produces or distributes electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) must register under the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) regulations and offer to take back any product previously sold (and at no charge). Effectively, the cost of recycling is borne by the manufacturer, not the customer (although the customer is likely to be indirectly charged).
Should a software company be required to offset the cost of using its products? Should Microsoft include a tree-planting levy for each copy of Windows it ships? Perhaps both of these arguments make sense, but equally (to use the car analogy), software sitting on a shelf or unused doesn’t consume resources. A vehicle sitting on a driveway undriven isn’t polluting the atmosphere. WEKA’s argument is slightly different, of course, making the assumption that if you’ve purchased a petabyte of software, then you’re probably using it on a cluster of active servers, whether it’s serving data or not. Perhaps in that instance the tax has already been paid by the manufacturer of the hardware.
It’s clear that the intangible nature of software makes the process of implementing any kind of levy much more challenging to achieve, especially Open Source solutions where there may not be a single owning entity. These issues make the entire process more practical to work as a voluntary arrangement rather than under regulation. At the end of the day, does the customer care?
The Architect’s View®
To the customer, carbon offsetting might be a “value-add” purchasing decision but is unlikely to be a primary driving factor. Instead, product efficiency and cost will be higher up the priority list. Efficient software uses fewer hardware resources, resulting in cost savings and, indirectly, fewer emissions. We believe that carbon offsetting licences is a positive statement, but this should be backed up with a scientific approach to data storage efficiency.
IT power efficiency benchmarks already exist (the work of the SPECpower Committee, for example), but perhaps we should be revisiting this area and developing better power/performance/cost metrics for the ongoing storage and access of data. This area is complex, but it’s perfectly possible for the industry to create schemes that do for software what energy labelling has done for white goods. Something as simple as IOPS/W would work. In the meantime, we applaud any company, including WEKA, for making a stand on environmental issues, and look forward to this discussion continuing.
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