From data-storage to IT servers to software, cloud computing continues to accelerate and analysts predict the rate of adoption of “virtualized” software definitely won’t be slowing down in 2015. Like many of our high tech peers, we moved away from boxed software and began delivering our software through the cloud several years ago. Today 80 percent of Adobe’s products are delivered electronically.
While the business benefits and drawbacks of cloud-based software have been bantered quite a bit, the environmental aspect is not often discussed. We asked the renowned planetary futurist Alex Steffen, author of Carbon Zero and Worldchanging, to share his thoughts on how the industry’s shift to cloud impacts the environment.
Q: You’ve often said that modern industry and technology are not responsible for our current ecological challenges. But if modernization isn’t responsible, what is?
AS: Well, I think one of the big breakthroughs that we’ve had over the last dozen years or so has been the awareness that, it’s not anything as vague as “industry” or “modernization” or even “greed” that’s causing the problems, but rather, it’s the specific kinds of systems that we use to meet our needs and the ways we have designed those systems that are to blame.
When we see that and we realize that it is, in fact, possible to meet our needs and provide a higher quality of life for a great many people through setting up systems that simply work better, it gives us reason for optimism. But it also inspires us to move faster, because the longer we do things in bad ways, the more severe the costs become. To implement new systems to tackle our current problems, we have to be fast, smart, and willing to do things on a big scale.
Q: Do you suppose the software industry’s move away from packaged products and toward cloud-based software can be seen as that kind of systemic shift?
AS: Definitely. Across the board, we’re seeing a move to smarter systems for things that we no longer need to physically own or possess. For instance, we see systems that help us avoid needing to own a car by giving us rides whenever we want them, or services that allow us to stream whatever music we like without needing to own physical discs. All sorts of goods are evolving into services and being decoupled from their former physical counterparts, saving energy and money.
Regarding software, specifically, there’s a whole chain of environmental impacts that come from trying to put that on a shelf so somebody can get it. You instantly eliminate a lot of those impacts when you stop selling software as a physical product, because otherwise you have to produce the software on physical media of some kind, you have to manufacture boxes, and you have to ship those packaged products around the world and then distribute them to individual stores.
Once in stores, that packaged software has to sit on shelves and the stores have to be heated and lit, and individual customers have to drive their carbon-emitting cars to the store, one by one, to buy that software. But if you can eliminate all of that wasteful energy expenditure by releasing a digital product instead of a physical product, that’s potentially a really big win.
Q: Are there any other environmental benefits for software companies considering deploying their products through the cloud?
AS: Absolutely, because it’s not just about the products themselves. More and more companies are also realizing that that same kind of thinking—virtual, cloud-based, low-impact—can be applied to their own operations. So you’re starting to see this as the tip of the iceberg where people realize that there are a great many ways to actually improve the environmental efficiency and thus the performance of the way they do things all through the company, such as by opting for video-conferencing instead of air travel, to use one common example.
But the main benefit is for companies to simply realize that it is possible to shoot for zero impact, to shoot for low-energy operations through virtualization, and then to use those gains to make better products and become more competitive. It’s a growing trend, led by the popularity of the cloud, that’s proving really promising all around the world.