The Greening of Streaming, One Year On

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It is interesting, after writing in these pages for 20 years, reflecting on what sometimes grows from them! 

A year ago I wrote an article titled "The Greening of Streaming." I had, for the first time, decided to investigate the environmental and sustainability issues that face our industry sector. In my role as chair of the Content Delivery Summit, I also brought the topic to top of discussions in all three of the conferences over the past months, with a good reception and positive engagement. It was the first time at any CDN, telco, or streaming conference I had heard the topic addressed, and was impressed with the interest shown.

This is a topic that folks in our industry like to discuss, and there is a strong sense of aligned interest throughout our community. As I am finding myself increasingly saying, we only win on this issue if we ALL win.

Over the past year I've noticed numerous large actors in the industry begin to introduce formal statements on sustainability in their financial statements. This is a significant change from two years ago, when sustainability was really limited to the CFOs domain as a bottom-line cost in infrastructure provisioning.

Now companies not only want to ensure they are efficient from a pure power consumption point of view, but they increasingly want to be able to look shareholders, consumers, and (not least) family members in the eye and articulate responsible decision making around the sources of that power, the recycling and disposal of retired infrastructure, and where the traditional balance in optimization for price and performance has to now accommodate power and sustainability as a key consideration.

Is this simply a sign that large corporations are developing a sense of social responsibility? 

Undeniably yes. 

While there is often a portrayal of large industry actors disowning "problems that were not theirs," the modern streaming industry is, by and large, reasonably conscious that it has become one of the largest consumers of energy, and regardless of a typical company's focus on "maximising shareholder value,"  the people active in the company, and the company’s customers are all forcing a focus on environmental impact regardless of the company’s own strategic direction.

The corporate entity may be myopically focussed on its product/services functions, revenue and margin. But those who enable it to operate are collectively adopting a narrative that focuses on corporate social responsibility. In some ways there is nothing the company can do to prevent this attitudinal change. It is in practice a gradual cultural revolution.

And it's a good one!

There is nothing better than being able to deliver fantastic streams to vast audiences, and to be able to do so while reducing the sense of guilt that we are burning a hole in the planet.

When you combine all the internet infrastructure that enables streaming—and we acknowledge that this is shared by many applications of many kinds— the application of streaming creates one of the largest demands for compute and network capacity of all uses of the internet. 

While bitcoin is currently a popular target for power-consumption criticism, streaming puts bitcoin mining to shame.  While around a million GPUs were bought for crypto mining last year, there are literally billions of CPUs and GPUs distributed all over the internet—in laptops, smartphones, smart TVs, production facilities, clouds, and CDNs—all of them working to encode, deliver, and decode video. 

Streaming is more familiar to the layperson than crypto mining. Crypto mining sounds bad, is always highlighted in "other" countries (appealing to visceral xenophobia), and frankly doesn't make any sense to any layman. And yet streaming really does make sense. It has become a way of life for so many, especially this past year. 

It is for this reason that the loudest criticisms concerning power consumption in an IT context have recently been pointed to coin miners (Elon Musk's statements about bitcoin being a recent case in point). Who really feels a loss when a bitcoin mine is crushed: "surely it was some form of fraud anyway, no?"

But point the finger at Netflix, Disney, BBC, or Hulu and suddenly the consumer goes quiet. "Well yes, it uses power, but we like watching TV ..." 

...and yet it appears, to me at least, that our industry's power consumption dwarfs that of coin mining.

So there is some way to go before we fully feel the heat of the rest of the world forcing our streaming industry to be fully accountable for all the energy we use, and yet, given the scale of problem, we really need to get our ducks in a row and make sure we review how we do things to ensure we have a good answer when the flood of questions are turned in our direction.

It is for this reason that I asked my software company id3as to support me in setting up a members association called Greening of Streaming to "raise awareness of the environmental impact of the Streaming industry, to spread best 'green' practices and to provide a collective voice for the industry when addressing sustainability challenges with wider stakeholders and external observers."

Over the past few months I have held many discussions with Tim Siglin, my erstwhile companion and fellow contributing editor at Streaming Media, to scope our collective industry challenges around sustainability and identify ways we feel we can catalyse the right discussions and action plans.

This has resulted in the formalisation of Greening of Streaming, and the appointment of a full-time executive director, Adam Curwin, who is by experience a management accountant/CFO and who has a particular interest in the topic, having previously run the Green Energy Unit at EDF Energy.

We have an exciting few months ahead of us as we open the doors.

On September 9 we are holding a free/open Zoom meeting to introduce Greening of Streaming to the community. There will be:

  • A welcome and presentation from me, Tim, and Adam to set the scene, 
  • A keynote from Dan Schein of Bristol University to help us understand some of the challenges developing lexicon, measurement, and terminology that we will need as we find a common industry voice.
  • Case studies from Akamai and Intel
  • And possibly more case studies from YOU (we are inviting anyone who might help us understand the range of sustainability issues we may face as an industry to get in touch and express an interest to speak for a few minutes at the event)

After that we will be opening the door to membership, and those who join before the end of September will be considered Founding Members.

In October we will be holding our first closed-door members meeting where we will put a few key organisational processes in place and set to work on a collective statement of intent, with the first iteration of that being presented at a public launch (in the UK Parliament) at the end of the year.

So if you are interested, work with or around streaming, and have some input and good ideas or practical experience to bring, please join us at these events and help us to network with others in your organisation who are focused on sustainability. 

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The Greening of Streaming

The time has long since passed to turn our attention to making the streaming delivery ecosystem more environmentally friendly. Here are some of the key challenges, as well as some suggested first steps towards solutions.