How Microsoft is Leading the Way to Sustainable Software

#Software #Software Sustainability
Dive into the impact software has on CO2 emissions, the tools and initiatives that can lead to sustainable software, and some of the important progress made so far in this conversation with Preben Thorø, CTO of Trifork Swizterland, and Asim Hussain, Green Cloud Advocate at Microsoft.

Intro- What is Green Cloud?

Preben Thorø: Thanks for joining us today. With us we have Asim Hussain Hussain, who is a Green Cloud Advocate for Microsoft. Asim Hussain, what does that mean? What is Green Cloud?

Asim Hussain: Green Cloud Advocacy is all about how you build green applications, and what is a green application? So, Green Cloud Advocacy at Microsoft is all about building what we call green applications. That is an application that is carbon efficient. So, for each gram of carbon that this application's responsible for emitting into the atmosphere, you get the most valuable, the most work out of it as possible. That's really what a green application is, according to our definition.

Preben Thorø and Asim Hussain interview

Although my title is Green Cloud Advocate, it has the word "cloud" inside it. I don’t only work from a cloud perspective, but also from a client perspective. So, I work very closely with people in our organization who work on the Windows side of the equation, on the mobile app development side of the equation. We all care about how we actually build applications that are greener. How do we build applications that emit less carbon into our atmosphere? That's really kinda what we do, what we talk about, how we describe kind of Green Cloud and Green Cloud Advocacy.

How can I build a green app?

Preben Thorø: Now, that opens up a lot of questions. Like, how can I build my app in such a way that it actually has an impact on this CO2 emission?

Asim Hussain: There's a couple of different ways of looking at this opportunity. Whether an opportunity for an engineer, for somebody who's involved in the process of building applications. Be it an engineer or designer, anybody who's involved in the process of building software. The first division that you might look at is software that helps the world become more sustainable. So, a great example of that might be AI applications that you're using to help figure out how many trees there are on the planet. Like, that's one way that you're using software and technology, and your skills in that space to be more sustainable.

The other division is how do I actually make sure that my application, my software itself, is running more sustainably? Because software and IT, and our whole industry, as well as being the potential solution to a lot of our sustainability problems, is also a cause of a lot of our problems. There are some stats out there that are quite useful. Right now, just data sensors consume about 1 percent of all the world's electricity

Actually, most electricity is still quite dirty, still created through the burning of fossil fuels. But that's predicted to increase by the end of 2030 to 3 percent to 8 percent, depending on the growth of our industry.

If you look at the entire ICT sector, not just data centers, all of the networking, all of the devices, everything, it's predicted to, by 2040, be responsible for 14 percent of all carbon emissions. So the other question is, how do you actually build software, which, itself, emits less carbon? Then, you can further divide that into two categories. With this is a binary search tree of how we actually solve this problem. So, how you can split that into two and one is called carbon-efficient applications, and one is called carbon-aware applications.

Green Software Foundation

A carbon-efficient application is one that just the user doesn't know. The user has no idea that someone's done anything. It's just more efficient. I mean, it just emits less carbon. The user behavior, the functionality, everything is the same. A carbon-aware application is something that changes the user behavior to emit fewer carbon emissions. One example of that might be a version of Windows that only charges your laptop if the wind is blowing and the sun is shining in your local area and, therefore, you're probably going to charge through renewable power and renewable energy. That's called a carbon-aware application, a carbon-efficient application.

For a lot of engineers and a lot of people involved in the process of building software, this is completely new. What I'm just explaining right now is completely new. It requires a completely new set of skills. It's not something that we're taught already. So, this is one of the things we're doing. We are growing this field called green software engineering, which is going to help engineers understand the skills that they need in order to build carbon-efficient and carbon-aware applications.

There are a few resources out there right now to explain some of this stuff. One of them is a website called principles.green, which lists what's called the Eight Principles of Green Software Engineering. There's some work that we've done in Microsoft aka.ms/sse/learn, which is kind of video material of the same. We've got blogs. And one of the things we've just launched and quite excited about is a foundation called The Green Software Foundation. It's the collaboration with many other organizations who are also looking at green software engineering to grow this field, provide education, training, certification, things like that to really teach people who, you know, are involved in building software. The skills for them to know how to build green software.

Well, that's a very long answer to your question, but I think we covered it there.

How can software move the needle on sustainability?

Preben Thorø: I was actually delighted that you started by mentioning that we can all do something by simply building software that supports sustainability in this world. Because I really think that we, as a software business, have a huge impact on what's going on in the world. So, if we could all just be a little bit more mindful about this, I'm sure it could have a huge impact.

Asim Hussain: There's a wonderful statistic I would love to throw in right now, which I think is quite impactful. Which is, all those numbers I gave you previously, the 1 percent of electricity, 14 percent of carbon emissions by 2040, right now we think there are about 30 million software developers in the world, 30 million. That's a small number of people who have influence over a very significant amount of our carbon emissions. We can influence 30 million people. We don't even need to influence 30 million. Not everybody on the team needs to be the security lead for a product to be secure. I say to myself, and I say it to others, I think we only need to influence one million software engineers. If we can get to one million software engineers, we can move a very big lever with sustainability. And I think that's one of the most impactful things about our industry and why we need to work in this space.

Preben Thorø: Yes, maybe we should even start to teach sustainability at the university.

Asim Hussain: Yes, absolutely. That's one of the questions I get asked a lot, especially from government organizations. A lot of governments out there are really, really keen to make sure that sustainability is now taught in syllabuses. 

The future is a future in which every single industry, be it software or something else, every single industry is going to go through a green transformation. And people need to be skilled up in those fields if countries want to make sure they have some kind of gainful employment in 10, 20 years' time.

Is the screen color related to a carbon-efficient app?

Preben Thorø: You mentioned carbon-efficient applications. I once read that if Google just decided to make the default screen color black instead of white, it would have a huge impact on the energy consumption out there. Isn't that true?

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Asim Hussain: Well, I don't know if... I think the world has moved on a little bit from that black time because that was around the 2000s when the amount of computation that people were using was a lot less. 

Your display, when it comes to your laptop, your display is going to be the biggest consumer, oftentimes the biggest consumer of electricity. However, it depends on your display because if you have an LCD screen, with an LCD screen, black showing black uses energy… uses more energy than showing white. With an OLED screen showing white uses more energy than showing black. So now, it just depends. But back in those days when that report came out, that was when we were all looking at... Remember the old monitors, the CRT monitors?

Preben Thorø: Yes.

Asim Hussain: In that time, it was like showing black was no energy and showing white required energy, so that's why flipping to black was less energy. It's a complicated answer. Like everything in sustainability space, these days there is a complicated answer.

The impact of the software industry on the CO2 emissions

Preben Thorø:  What are the numbers, the amount of CO2 that our business is responsible for now? Can you state like the public numbers?

Asim Hussain: There's a couple of comparisons. One comparison that was made was versus the aviation industry, which was often misquoted, actually. It's often quoted that it's kind of our equivalent to the aviation industry. It is slightly less because it's equivalent to the fuel that the aviation industry consumes. Well, it used to consume, not so much these days. So, that's one of them. When we talk about the future, when we talk about 14 percent, 14 percent is currently about all… it's currently all transportation, so everything. So, 14 percent right now is all boats, all planes, all cars. That's 14 percent right now.

Asim Hussain interview

That's kind of one of the things with these percentages because I even mentioned, like, 1 percent, and I know people have like, "What's 1 percent?" One percent is a huge number. One percent is if we, in our entire industry, can help move the needle for 1 percent, that's a number worth moving because we're not the only people in the world focusing on this. Like, every single sector, the whole of the agriculture industry is looking at this. The whole of the transportation sector is looking at this. The whole of the energy sector is looking at this. So, really, this is about what we can do in our sector? And what is our battlefront, and what do we need to do in the tech sector to help meet that?

Preben Thorø: Yes.

Asim Hussain: I mean what's our responsibility for that slice of the pie?

How can you start to reduce the impact?

Preben Thorø: Talking about what we can do, how do I get started, here?

Asim Hussain: The first thing I recommend doing is heading to the website, perhaps principles.green, or the Microsoft version of it, which is aka.ms/sse/learn. I made both of them. The Microsoft one just has slightly better graphics than the other one. So, they both have the same material. That'd be the first place, just to get started in kind of learning about this.

The next stage I would do is now that we've launched the foundation, the Green Software Foundation, this is going to be the place where we get everybody gathered around, start focusing on this, so building the community of people and the education, the training. So I recommend then heading to greensoftware.foundation and, for now, just sign up for the newsletter. Then, from that point forward, we will be contacting people as we open up the membership, start working on more open-source material, and start creating training. If you're an organization and you're interested in joining you can head to that website as well, and there's an "apply for membership" button at the bottom.

It's managed by the Linux Foundation. They handle all the operations and a lot of the governance for our foundation. You can find out more information on how to join an organization and get involved from that perspective.

Preben Thorø: Thank you, thanks a lot. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Asim Hussain: No worries.

The Microsoft Team behind Green Software

Preben Thorø: Do you have an organization behind you within Microsoft? A team?

Asim Hussain: So, internally we have what's called the Green Software Engineering Working Group, which is just a collection of people from across all different divisions of Microsoft because Microsoft's quite a diversified company. 

I'm in the Cloud division. But we have got people in there from Windows, we've got people in there from Microsoft Research, from Xbox, from LinkedIn, from Github, from our subsidiaries. You know, all across Microsoft. Everybody who's really been asking themselves the question, how do we solve this problem from a software angle. Well, we're just kind of a great place. That's kind of this group that we have behind us.

Also, I would say one of the most amazing things about Microsoft that I love and if you hear our Chief Environmental Officer, Lucas Joppa, talk about it, like, we have a 4,000 strong green team inside Microsoft. So, like, 4,000 employees who've joined an internal community, and they do amazing things all over the world. There are chapters in almost every single country. They work on how we green up our campuses. The Indian campus did some amazing stuff. They've now built a bioreactor so that all of the waste from the canteen is put into a bioreactor, which turns into fuel, which powers the campus.

So these are things that are just run by the Green team. When people talk about Microsoft's big announcement that we made last year, I mean, that was done with collaboration and communication with the Green team. Because there are 4,000 people in Microsoft who are talking very lively about sustainability. It makes it very easy for the CEO to talk about sustainability. One of the first things I always tell people to do inside their organizations is just trying to grow a grassroots green team. That's the most powerful thing you can do. 

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Preben Thorø: One thing you mentioned here that didn't strike me before was the Xbox team. I could imagine that they're actually responsible for a lot of energy consumption.

Asim Hussain: And the Surface team, as well. Because Microsoft also builds things. So, we build a lot of things. Some companies out there, most of their carbon emissions are from just the electricity that they're consuming. Because Microsoft actually builds things and sells things, we have the carbon emissions from all the components of everything that we've built and sold. Think about every single thing that goes into an Xbox that releases emissions,  just the chemical process by which you made the materials, and the electricity you need to make materials.

And also, an Xbox will consume electricity. When we sell it to someone, they plug it into the home socket. That's actually also one of the things that Microsoft did with our announcement last year. I was quite surprised when I first got into this space. I thought the terms like carbon-neutral, I thought they were very clearly defined. And it's not. Carbon-neutral is a very ill-defined term. There's no global definition.

The US EPA has a definition. There's this thing called the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which is just like an accounting mechanism for your carbon, which is scope 1, is all the carbon that you release to the atmosphere by just burning things. Like, you burn petrol in your cars. Scope 2 is all the carbon emissions you release because of the electricity you've consumed, and electricity released carbon emissions in its production.

And scope 3 is like all the carbon emissions from your value chain. So, from everything that you bought to build stuff, and then when you sell that stuff to your consumers, everything that gets released because of your stuff, that's just scope 3. And your scope 3 from Microsoft is the biggest. And for a lot of companies, it's the biggest. To be carbon-neutral, the definition is, offset your scope 1, your scope 2, and it's up to you how much of your scope 3 you want to. You can do however much you want, but we recommend doing a big one.

So, that's why carbon-neutral has often been kind of this troublesome term. What Microsoft did at the start of last year when we announced our net-zero pledge is that we count all of it, scope 1, 2, and scope 3. And what that means, to go back to your question, is that it means the Xbox is fully accounted for. Everything that went into the Xbox, we count as our carbon thing. Everything that the Xbox will emit through its use is we count as our scope 3, and we are offsetting all of it.

Preben Thorø:: And it easily becomes a very complicated equation here. Like, what if we could reuse all the heat produced by the hosting center. That means that somewhere else in the chain, we don't have to produce that heat.

Asim Hussain: Yes.

The Maths behind the carbon-neutral protocols

Preben Thorø:  So, how do we make up for that in the calculations?

Asim Hussain: There is this thing called the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which I won't pretend to understand in a full sense. But there is an entire team of people inside Microsoft's department that is calculating those numbers.

So, for instance, if you use more energy to cool down a server, that energy emitted carbon in its creation, so that's how you factor that carbon cost into your total carbon costs. There are lots of things that we do from a data center perspective when we're exploring the reduction of carbon emissions.

So, one of the things that we do at Microsoft, and we've done recently, is what's called the Circularity Centers that we're rolling out across a number of different places. Basically, it's just a very simple idea, which is what if we just had a large space or a room in each data sensor where we put all of the broken servers, and we just took them apart, and we made sure that everything that could be reused was reused, instead of just throwing it away. How much of this stuff can be reused together? That is one of the things that we did is a circularity center.

There are some cool technologies out there. There are immersion coolings, which is where you can actually dip a server. So what we call a server, you're trying to use air to cool something. But actually, different materials are much better at cooling things. So, there are different kinds of fluids that you can dip a server in, and then that makes it a lot more efficient, and the cooling uses less energy. And there are other things like storing data takes a lot of energy, so what are other technologies you can use to actually store data instead of this stuff we've been using for decades, like magnetic storage systems. For example, there's research into DNA storage. All, really, high-tech things are in the pipeline. 

Preben Thorø: Thank you so much.

Asim Hussain: Thank you.

About the interviewer

Asim is a developer, trainer, author and speaker with over 19 years experience working for organisations such as the European Space Agency, Google and now Microsoft, where he is the Green Cloud advocacy lead.


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