When is sustainability more than effiiciency – is green hosting enough?

Much of the material I’ve covered in in previous posts concerned Web Performance Optimization (WPO) as a key element of sustainability. While it is an important component, I don’t want to give the impression that Sustainable Virtual Design is just about optimization.

In fact, optimization-thinking is why we need sustainability. Optimization takes existing design and programming and tries to make it more effiicient. If the original design or program is not sustainable, all we do is “streamline a hippo”. Sustainability looks at the bigger picture – in effect, the ecosystem of players in the design, development, and use of a virtual product. In the following, we’ll look at the “green hosting” movement, and how many are missing the forest for the trees.

First off, business models look a lot like ecosystems, and the terms used to describe flow in a business model schematic (CAC, LTR, DARPU) have analogies to energy flows in ecosystems. Using the biomimicry lens, we can analyze the sustainability of business concepts as a food chain, with money flows or value flows replacing energy and resource flows. The application of value flows between business ecosystem players can be formal (read: there are numbers rather than pious looks), and it is often invoked during the process of major redesign of a business process. This is directly related, in-turn to internal reorganizations needed to implement rapid redesign strategies in a company (think lots of prototypes in web design).

Here’s a reposted example of a business ecosystem from a company that specializes in working it out for clients, Corporate Communities Consulting:

business ecosystem schematic, showing players in business space
Business Ecosystem Schematic from "The Death of Competition"

Business models can also be analyzed by the “Triple Bottom Line, or TPL, which lists People, Planet, and Profit, in that order. It typically appears when a company adopts a Corporate Social Responsibility plan for its business.

Currently on the web, the idea of sustainability is concentrated around the idea of “green hosting.” There has been an explosion of (supposedly) green web hosts in the last year or so, and it has become a part of their competition for customers. And it is clear that customers understand the “green” element of web hosting. That’s interesting, because, to the end -user, hosting is as abstract as design, and since it is high-tech, one would expect them to think of it in terms of efficiency.

Right now, TPL or similar concepts are mostly being applied to the web’s infrastructure. Big Internet providers like Microsoft and Yahoo! are moving to green up their hosting centers to implement TPL. And recent publicity has their customers interested. Here’s a study from Rackspace, a “cloud” hosting company, showing that corporate customers value “green hosting” in theory and in practice:


The has some other interesting highlights. Interest in sustainable hosting solutions is at the company level (read: large web client) is twice as hight outside the US as within (27% verus 14%).

Respondents included significant participation from Asia, South America, and even Africa. 60% of responding companies outside the US had considered sustainability during some purchase of products or services (here the US was closer at 58%).

rackspace green hosting survey pie chart of the role of sustainability in business decisions
Sustainability vs. Business Decisions

Even more interesting, when Rackspace asked its respondents about the meaning of sustainability, they got it right and included economic sustainability along with the typical environmental definition. A significant minority even listed “social justice” in their definition, with most listing “all of the above”. This indicates to me that the respondents knew the definition of sustainability, and were not encountering it for the first time.

But, while this study shows some understanding that sustainability is about more than the electric bill, elsewhere we see a different story. Reports on the eco-blogs and by environmental organizations all focus on electricity. And, in this narrow focus, there is still the problem of Jevons’ Paradox, in which making something more “green” or efficient leads to a net rise in consumption.

Just making data centers green will, in all probability, cause a rise in net electricity, water, and manufacturing waste in the hosting IT community, as this awesome analysis on TriplePundit describes. As we have said elsewhere, it is only at the design level that we can do more than “streamline the hippo” and really build a sustainable web. Citing a 2012 GreenPeace study on green hosting (yup, the the Greenpeace website that is still a hypocritical energy hog),  they note that:

The growth and scale of investment in the cloud is truly mind-blowing, with estimates of a 50-fold increase in the amount of digital information by 2020 and nearly half a trillion in investment in the coming year, all to create and feed our desire for ubiquitous access to infinite information from our computers, phones and other mobile devices, instantly. The engine that drives the cloud is the data center.

The GreenPeace study is a good one to look at if you’re trying to understand what “green hosting” is really about. It covers energy, water, and e-waste produced by the rise in “the cloud” of the Internet (shades of a holy rapture tech here worthy of a singularian), and evaluates how big players like Google and Microsoft are doing. (Rackspace gets a ‘C’ from GreenPeace, btw). It then looks at the strategies companies can take, mostly saying that they demand renewable power from the countries they are in. Lots of good statistics and references.

But in some ways, the authors of the GreenPeace study are as clueless as everyone else – they don’t really look at the big issues surrounding the growth of the Internet – our drive to always-on, 24/7 lightning communication, with our social contacts converted into computable messages passed through computer networks. They note that Internet cloud IT is consuming energy comparable to being the 5th largest company in the world, but not a peep about how the design of Websites, APIs, e-commerce, and mobile access are creating this hunger for resources.

Hmmm, I thought that sustainability included the larger system. The larger system is the virtual ecosystem of websites, APIs, Internet services, desktops, mobiles, technologies that suck that IT power. They have to be considered in a solution. We can’t just assume that “Google needs to fix that” and go on our merry way.

I also question the idea that Google can do all that much. Google and other big IT providers are clearly trying to improve their sustainability, more so than the cellphone networks, according to the study. But they can just streamline a hippo. Currently, the idea of sustainability, applied to the Internet, is just the same as demanding that car makers create 100mpg vehicles, without any thought of why we need cars of a certain size in certain situations. The shift to green hosting is making the classic mistake of looking only at efficiency, and narrowing the focus to one part of the system to do so. Google might decrease its energy consumption by 50%. So what? Data transmission will grow 20-fold in the next decade, wiping out these gains, which Jevons’ Paradox at least part of the cause.

In other words, GreenPeace is focusing narrowly on efficiency of once sector of the Internet. While the study takes pains not to focus just on energy consumption, it ignores why there is a rise in consumption of Internet services. This is due to business models for the web, and how designers implement them. Hosting companies are just enablers. But, they are the “evil corporations” beloved of “green” (versus truly sustainable thinking) and big activist nonprofit need to attack equally big business to remain in the public eye. I suspect that they know that we prefer GreenPeace attack “them” rather than us. Its certainly comfortable to be a concerned artist or designer and come down on Google.

How much harder it will be to admit that Sustainable Virtual Design needs to be part of every web and game design and development shop if sustainability is going to succeed.

How many times can one say this…

Design is the problem.

Shame on you once, GP (for an energy-hog website), but now twice… for missing the point.

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