Friday, 28 December 2018

Starling Bank Hits 100% Sustainable Hosting


Starling is one of the UK’s most successful challenger banks and has been licensed and operating since July 2016. As a branchless, digital and largely paperless bank built in the cloud, in their own words "Starling Bank endeavours to protect the natural environment where it can through practising energy and resource efficiency, recycling and using sustainable waste management". Its ethics statement says the bank is committed to "the pursuit of ecological sustainability and to combating climate change".

Do they live up to that?

Starling are in the fantastic position of already having ~100% of their servers sustainably powered. They have met our goal of 100% sustainable servers by 2024. So yes - I'm impressed.

How on earth have they managed that given their cloud provider, AWS, is only 50% sustainable across their infrastructure??

It’s all about where you host!

Starling’s Infrastructure

Starling operate a backend system talking to apps on their users’ mobile phones and to third party services. Using this they provide a full current account, debit cards, direct debits, standing orders and faster payments to their customers. All of their server instances are hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and have been since day one.

Basically they’re a boring old bank but, not boringly, cloud hosted.

AWS Isn’t 100% Sustainable?!

AWS have a long term commitment to 100% sustainability for their servers but they have no date on that and since January 2018 they have achieved only 50% sustainably powered servers on average. That doesn’t sound too bad but it does mean that their fossil fuel use is growing at the same rate they are. And AWS is growing rather fast.

Nevertheless, although Starling Bank overwhelmingly run their servers on AWS they are entirely sustainably powered. How?

The good thing is, although AWS isn’t 100% sustainable overall they do have four fully carbon neutral public regions: Ireland, Frankfurt, Canada and Oregon.

Where You Host Matters

Every one of Starling’s official instances is in a sustainably-powered European region. That means all of Starling’s servers are clean or at least offset with local clean energy production.

Starling cannot be completely sure that no one in their tech team has ever used an ad-hoc test machine in another region, but the official location of choice is EU-West (Ireland) and that is where all their production servers live.

What about the future? Regulatory requirements and commercial considerations mean they’ll need to diversify into cross-cloud. They are already investigating Google Cloud for that reason. Will that bring their 100% achievement down? Fortunately not. Google Cloud is 100% sustainable across the board, so the machines they operate there, and the additional servers they will run in the future, will maintain Starling’s excellent sustainability score.

It’s Fintech! Why not London Region? 

It is interesting that although Starling is a significant player in London’s Fintech scene, they have no servers in AWS’ London region. A factor in that decision is that London is not one of AWS’s sustainable regions. 

Anne Boden, Starling's CEO, says: "It's important to us that we try to make sure that the power behind our AWS servers comes from sustainable sources."

If you want to read more about their infrastructure, I wrote a Starling Bank case study last year. If you would like to join them in making your servers more sustainable, please sign our “sustainable servers by 2024” petition and read our white paper on sustainable hosting.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash









Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Ethical Hosting at the FT


Last year, I wrote a case study on the excellent work that the FT have done on exploiting cloud infrastructure. For this follow-up, I talked to them about their progress towards not just fast and reliable systems but ethical and sustainable ones too. They are hopefully on course for meeting our Sustainable Servers by 2024 goal for ethical tech systems - it all depends on some small improvements from AWS.

The FT run over 75% of their compute in AWS cloud regions and are on track to move their remaining on prem servers into the cloud by 2020. At that point, their servers will commendably be nearly 90% sustainably-powered. After that, they would love to achieve 100% by 2024 - but they will need to persuade AWS to not limit some of their vital new services to the comparatively dirty US East region.

As their senior technical architect Rob Godfrey says, “As the FT continue to migrate our on premise infrastructure to the cloud throughout 2019, we will utilise sustainable cloud infrastructure where we can. We would love to see AWS continue to improve the sustainability of their data centres, us-east-1 in particular.”

The Process

Let’s step back and look at the FT’s progress in hosting so far. Historically, like most of us, they started with bare metal servers in their own on-prem data centres (DCs) powered by the UK’s mostly fossil fuel electricity. Again, like many of us their first step towards better utilisation and DC efficiency was on-prem virtualisation (they went for VMWare on Intel). They then experimented with building their own cloud but, in 2013, they chose to start trialling AWS when it became clear it was stable enough and going to provide the functionality they needed. Since then, the FT have been gradually transitioning all their servers from on prem to cloud - a transition they are on target to complete by 2020.

In 2018, around 75% of the FT’s infrastructure is AWS Cloud-based. However, where it is in that Cloud is crucial to its sustainability.

How Clean is AWS?

AWS currently have 4 non-governmental fully sustainable, 100% carbon neutral regions:

  • Ireland
  • Frankfurt
  • Canada
  • Oregon. 

Today, the FT splits their cloud resources roughly 5:1 between bare AWS instances and a Heroku PaaS.

⅙ on Heroku

Heroku's compute is AWS-hosted. ~70% of the FT’s Heroku dynos run in the "EU" Heroku region (which appears to correspond to the 100% carbon neutral Ireland AWS region) and ~30% in the "US" Heroku region (which appears to be on AWS's US East). These are the only 2 common Heroku runtime hosting options - EU (100% sustainable) and US (us-east-1, so ~50%).

⅚ on AWS

For the FT’s ~1250 “bare” AWS instances, they primarily use 2 regions: the sustainable Ireland (EU West) and the vastly less clean US-East. How is this resource divided up and why do they use two different regions?

Most of the FT’s compute is in sustainable EU Ireland, but for their high availability services they split their hosting over 2 regions: Ireland and us-east-1. In addition, they sometimes need to host further instances in US East because AWS still make some new or trial functionality only available in that region. AWS Lambda (Amazon’s Function-as-a-Service platform) for example was originally only available in that one region. As a result ~19% (by cost) of the FT’s AWS infrastructure remains in US East.

Overall Sustainability of the FT Hosting Infrastructure

All the numbers we give here are very approximate estimates, but if we assume that

  • AWS’ US East region is 50% sustainable (a guess based on 50% being AWS’ overall average sustainability and US East being their largest region). 
  • The FT’s legacy DC is 0% sustainable.
  • The FT’s AWS instances are 90.5% sustainable (corresponding to 81% in EU West being fully sustainable and 19% in US-East being 50% sustainable
  • The FT’s Heroku infrastructure is 85% sustainable (corresponding to the 70% in the EU being fully sustainable and 30% in US-East being 50% sustainable.


The result is that we estimate very roughly* 67% of the FT’s infrastructure is currently running on sustainable servers and this will rise to nearly 90% when they have completely transitioned to the Cloud in 2020.

This is good. But how will they get the final 10%? We’d all love it if AWS’s US East went carbon neutral! Failing that, we need to see features only available in that region (like new feature trials) being offered in sustainable regions too, so that clients like the FT could get the sustainable servers they want for the new services they need. 

In summary, the FT are making excellent progress but to get all the way to the all important 100% that they’d love to see, they’ll need some additional help from their cloud providers.

If you’d like to support them and us in our sustainable hosting goals, please sign our petition for 100% carbon neutral hosting targets for our industry.

 *All calculations are approximate.

Photo by Kenrick Mills on Unsplash






Thursday, 27 September 2018

Cloud vs Humanity? The State Of Data Centre Energy Use In 2018

This week we published a report by Paul Johnston and Anne Currie on the state of energy use in the Cloud and how we, as consumers, can make ethical choices about hosting.

It's not merely an academic issue. Data centres may not be at the front of our minds but just because we don't think about them much doesn't mean they aren't vital. In fact, DCs play a major role in humanity's future. As Microsoft President Brad Smith points out they'll, "rank by the middle of the next decade among the large users of electrical power on the planet". We have reached the point that DCs are outstripping the aviation industry as carbon producers and within 5 years they may be on a par with all of transport.

That's crazy isn't it? Tech is supposed to be clean???

To us, the definition of unethical (even if it's inadvertent) is to do harm when you have the means and ability to avoid it.

The aviation industry gets a lot of stick but actually they try pretty hard to reduce carbon emissions. Only carbon-based jet fuel has the energy density to support mass aviation at the moment (although people are working on it).  In tech, we don't have that excuse. We need electricity to run servers not jet fuel and for electricity you have a lot of generation options.

So if this is so bad, why isn't anyone talking about it or doing anything? Well actually, some folk are. The Google Cloud (and all their servers) run on renewable power directly or offsets. That's solar, wind and hydro (though we'll personally also accept nuclear). The same is mostly true of Microsoft Azure. These tech giants are putting some of their vast profits towards cleanly generating the power they rely on. In fact, Aiphabet is the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world.

Only Capitalism Can Save Us - No, Really

"But, the government will save us!", you might cry. These days I find I don't really want to rely on that and there's no need to. We can save ourselves. As DC customers, which most of us are, we can buy sustainable servers right now and it won't cost us anything more. We merely need to pay attention and apply a little bit of consumer choice.

As we describe in the paper, as consumers there's loads we can do right now to be sustainable:
  • For Google Cloud users, you're already sustainable. Congratulations and thank you.
  • For Azure users, you’ve mostly done it. Congratulations. Do ask Microsoft to speed up their switch from carbon energy certficates to renewables.
  • For AWS users, you can do it by transitioning your instances/resources to sustainable public regions (currently Dublin, Frankfurt, Canada and Oregon).
  • If you operate your own servers on prem you can choose a renewable energy supplier.
  • For everyone else, tell your Cloud or co-lo provider that Sustainable Servers - your Data Centre powered or offset by renewable energy - by 2024 is what you want.
Capitalism works in certain circumstances and this should be one of them. You have money. If you choose to spend it on sustainable rather than unsustainable energy for your servers then that's what you'll get and more sustainable generation capacity will be built.

All you need to do is state your preference to your Cloud, DC or co-lo provider. If you don't want to do that in person, just sign our sustainable servers petition and we'll even do it for you. This is a no-brainer. Please help.


Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Ethical Future of Data Centres?

"A 5 year goal for 100% Sustainable Servers across all data centres worldwide - every server we operate should be running on sustainable energy"
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were defined in 2000 to “produce a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world”. They're bold, uncontroversial targets for the human race including “zero hunger” and “clean energy” - and they're working:
“More than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty and child mortality dropped by more than half” - The United Nations on their SDGs
In our judgment, tech ethics requires setting such demanding goals, which benefit all humankind, for tech.

There are many ethical goals we could set ourselves but we reckon one of the highest impact, most achievable targets is 100% Sustainable Servers.

About Sustainable Servers
Data Centres use 2% of the world's energy. That's roughly as much as all of aviation. We can fix that.
"We could offset the entire aviation industry" - Anne Currie, Container Solutions
Imagine a world where our data centres were carbon neutral. We would offset every plane flight and, as wealthy and reliable consumers of renewable power, we would drive new investment and innovation in energy generation. We'd be amazing.

That's the world we want to build. But how can we do it?

Most of us don't build our own data centres but there are still simple things we could all do to help deliver 100% Sustainable Servers, for example:
  • Sign our petition to show you care.
  • For on-prem, demand a higher mix of sustainable electricity for power.
  • For new public Cloud, choose a sustainable provider like Google or Azure.
  • Whenever you use a new service, make sustainable servers a major factor. That's why this site is hosted on 100% renewably-powered Blogger.

We need Sustainable Servers. The tech industry must drive it. Google and Azure appear to have secured reliable power for their data centres for years ahead; now the rest of us need to catch up - Sustainable Servers are the new "Gifee": Google Infrastructure For Everyone Else. 
"Servers run on electricity., which could be renewable" - Anne Currie, Container Solutions
For years, many of the world's most successful and forward thinking companies have been quietly switching over to sustainable electricity. They have achieved this by buying renewable power (Google is now the world's biggest corporate customer of renewable energy) and by improving the design of data centres (Facebook have helped found the Open Compute Project to share their improved energy efficiency DC designs). Read our forthcoming whitepaper on Sustainable Server Transition for ideas, help, and guidance. But, you are the expert in your own systems. How could they be cleaner and more energy secure?

We propose the tech industry sets a 5 year goal for 100% Sustainable Servers across all data centres worldwide. Every server we operate should be running on sustainable energy. This is achievable and it will benefit everyone - including ourselves through more secure energy sources. Google, Facebook and Apple are showing the way. Let's do it.
"100% Sustainable Servers by 2024"
Sign our petition.




Saturday, 1 September 2018

How Not To Regret What You Create


Guest post from Sam Warner, edited by Anne Currie

In software, things get built quickly: “move fast and break things”. We see companies, teams and individuals proud of how fast they can make <shiny new thing> but as a community we shouldn’t let this be all that defines us. We need to be more three-dimensional. I find it hard to believe that all we are really concerned with is how quickly we can get features out the door. Don’t get me wrong - as a software consultant, I love providing as much business value to a customer as quickly as I can, but I’m just as proud, if not more, when I can provide software that has gone through considerate design and causes some social good.

Tech Ethics, now more than ever, is something everyone in the industry of software development needs to consider. We need to dive in. And when we do this, we need to be able to create resources and talk about what we discover, but that is far easier said than done. Of late, we’ve seen some technology take nasty turns - people have been the victims of hate-speech on microblogging platforms, their social media data exploited for monetary or political gain, and even fallen victim to misinformation in the form of so-called “fake news”. The users of our systems are growing apprehensive of software once again.

Yet I don’t believe every instance of technology that causes negative social impact is intentionally harmful or exploitative. Sometimes, I think that negligence and lack of awareness are two of the biggest contributors. For example, when Mark Zuckerberg first made Facebook in his university bedroom, I don’t think it was ever planned to be the dopamine-exploiting, data-crunching tool we see it as today. Is it possible that a lack of awareness in Tech Ethics led to Facebook being in a position where it could exploit its users?

We’re beginning to learn from our mistakes. We’re beginning to see fallacies around the benefits of unethical tech debunked. We’re building up case studies, tools and teachings with the goal of preventing us causing and experiencing these regrettable issues again.
Education and awareness is our best friend.

Sharing Your Resources

Up until very recently, my go-to list of advice/resources when anyone asked “how do I become better at this tech ethics thing?” was the following:

  • You’re already off to a great start by asking that question.
  • Go and watch QCon London’s Tech Ethics in Action videos (they’re on InfoQ and all amazing!)
  • Run a retrospective on your current project, but from an entirely ethical standpoint - step in to other people’s shoes and view your project from their eyes.
  • Discuss the output and ideas that follow with colleagues and friends.
  • Push for change, because even the smallest contributions build up to make a world of difference!

I say ‘until recently’, because as of about a week ago there is a new top tip to add to the collection.

“Check out the EthicalOS Toolkit!”

Ethical OS

Developed by the Institute for the Future and the Omidyar Network, EthicalOS toolkit is one of my new favourite tools for teaching about and raising awareness of ethical issues in technology. Their website states their objective is to aid in “anticipating the future impact of today’s technology”, and I think it lives up to this lofty claim.

The toolkit is in actual fact a PDF, with three main tools:


  • Tool 1: A set of fourteen detailed scenarios involving ‘future technology’ designed to start conversations and train us to identify problems on the horizon.
  • Tool 2: A risk mitigation manual - a guide to eight different areas your users could fall victim to the hard-to-anticipate and unwelcome consequences of your software, and how to avoid them in the first place.
  • Tool 3: A handful of strategies and business models to future-proof your development, with an ultimate goal of making healthy development platforms the industry norm!

Each area is further divided into bite-size sections and the guide can be picked up and put down really easily - you only need five minutes to go over some of these concepts for the first time, and it begins to place users in the mindset of a technology ethicist. This is before even beginning to look at the Risk Mitigation Form provided separately on EthicalOS’s website, which pulls the manual into an easy to fill-out checklist of consideration points and actionable tasks.

The guide cleverly balances people and software to produce a refreshing way for everyone to enhance their understanding in this area - from beginners dipping their toes in for the very first time, to thought leaders, there is something in there for everyone.

Their single-page website, and their linked resources, are written in a way that is comprehensive, yet understandable. What lies at the core is a very difficult topic, but the entire thing is presented so clearly that you are almost tricked into believing that it would be simple to write. Make no mistake, this is a new benchmark for learning resources.

The toolkit really highlights how many questions we should be asking.

Sci Fi? 

The scenarios posed to readers vary from the sort of technology you might have already seen or even used, to hyper-futuristic technology that isn’t yet on the horizon. For example, one of the scenes that I think relates heavily to technology right now is scenario 3. This particular setting explores “addiction and the dopamine economy” by detailing a world in which some social media companies decide voluntarily to enforce time limits, creating a social divide between people that spend their time locked-in online and those that are choose to spend their time offline. I have friends that already use apps to limit screen time - think Offtime/Moment/Breakfree - maybe this situation isn’t far from reality, and social media providers could implement this tomorrow. This lies in stark contrast to the more Sci Fi scenario 9, where “Read-and-write” neurotech implants are a reality and users have their thoughts and memories uploaded to the cloud for sharing and analysis, making us ask questions of how we might mitigate and prevent against a surveillance state.

Not only do the scenarios vary in terms of how far they are away from being a reality, they also vary by sector. Scenario 6 is based around the legal industry, asking us if we are ready for a world in which “predictive justice” tools become the preferred method for determining prison sentences, and what the problems with this might be. The impact delivery drones might have on the world is discussed in scenario 12, provoking discussion about the future of logistics from an inclusive and moral standpoint. Scenario 14 covers the automotive sector (very popular where I am based in the West Midlands), talking about a reality in which self-driving vehicles become vulnerable to a new type of realtime ransomware, and how deadly this issue could be.

Whatever your day job, interests, or concerns for future tech are, I think there are a few scenarios in here for everyone.

I myself have found this to be an absolutely invaluable tool in beginning to bring together colleagues and friends and starting to talk about the impact of what we do. The scenarios provide a fantastic foundation to kick start us in to action, and by providing a meaningful and specific vocabulary to readers, it facilitates further conversation and more importantly, terms to describe problems we might identify- saving us from explaining personal issues we’ve experienced in the past, or explaining discomfort as a ’gut feeling’.

I’ll add that a comment I have heard from peers about this toolkit is how useful it would be for any startup. I agree with this, but would stress to any readers sitting on the fence that this is not a kit solely for startups. There is something in there for everyone (convenient - that’s what I asked for in my intro). The resources hosted on EthicalOS are to help all product teams build responsibly.

When you are reading through it, the initial responsibility might be a little overwhelming. You might feel that your current processes are familiar and ‘good enough’ that you don’t want to change. You might not initially know exactly what to do with this deluge of information. But dedicating time to these resources and taking heed of their warnings will be worth it.

After reading through this article, maybe you’ll feel a little lost. Here’s a summary of my five top tips for making the most of the toolkit and checklist:


  • Read through the toolkit. Don’t feel like you should blast through the whole thing in one go, as there is a whole lot of information in there! Instead, check through small sections frequently - I did this with my morning coffee.
  • Go through the supplied checklist with a previous or current project in mind. Try and identify risk areas and begin to think of a plan to mitigate them.
  • Run a workshop (internally, at a meetup group, or with friends) to go through one of the scenarios. For bonus points, choose a scenario based around some of the group’s previously identified risks.
  • Ask if there is scope to change your ways of work. This can be for everything, from open-source projects to commercial work - for any software development processes you have, can you add regular risk reviews or ethical feasibility when considering new features?
  • Pass it on! Let more people know that this toolkit exists.


I truly believe that any team that takes ideas from this list and the EthicalOS toolkit will be on to the start of something great. The smallest contributions to ethical technology and considerate design build up to create a global network of developers that truly care about the human implications what they make. By starting at home, and with small steps, we can begin to reprogram the values of software engineering.

We should all strive for the level of future-proofing that EthicalOS is pushing us towards. By doing this, we will standardise these processes and thoughts, and we might begin to ensure we don’t regret what we build.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Tech Ethics for Developers

After the Facebook, Uber and Volkswagen scandals, where are we as an industry? How did we get here and will things get better or worse? 80% of developers don’t feel it’s their responsibility if unethical products go live. Are they right?

We're here to question who is ultimately responsible for the impact of tech products, for good and bad, and what they can do about it.

Code doesn't kill people, product managers do? Or maybe shareholders? CEOs? Developers? Or do we all need to be informed and responsible?

In July 2018, we ran the Coed:Ethics conference in London - a radically new event championing diverse, bottom-up, developer-driven ethics asking how can we make technologists the last bastion of defence against unethical products? After all, we design, write and deploy them.

With talks, open mic and panels, we examined ethical decision-making at scale, building ethical products vs unethical ones, the psychology of making and standing by decisions and the pragmatic application of ethics within the Agile or CD process.

Should techies be amoral guns for hire? Can we be more and what resources can help us? This was the first in a series of activities designed to change the conversation.

What did we conclude? There are plenty of actions developers can take today to be more ethical. The easiest is around climate change and the way we host our servers. Read more about our sustainable servers petition and white paper. 

Resources

One of our Coed:Ethics goals was to build resources for developers around ethics in technology. We've set up a github project of useful links, thoughts and information for devs and non-devs alike. Please read and contribute your favourite resources.

We are also looking into resources about and trials of ethical Agile processes. Can we automate ethics? If not, how close can we get?

Collaborations


  • We are collaborating with the tech think tank Doteveryone on ethical checklists (or Responsible Tech as their project is called).
  • We are good friends with the team behind the GoodTechConf in Brighton in November. A great conference to go to !


Who are we?

Coed:Ethics is brought to you by Anne Currie and the team at Container Solutions working together with Coed:Code, the London tech meetup with over 700 members of all ages, genders, races, levels of experience in tech and (dis)abilities. Ethics in tech is a debate for everyone. Follow us @coedethics, @anne_e_currie, @containersoluti or @coedcode.