Performance engineers are green engineers

I’m a software performance engineer – my job is to make software faster. The ideal way to make software faster is to stop making it do things that it doesn’t need to be doing to get the job done. Any rational person would look at that sentence and say “well duh”. Any sensible software developer will look at that sentence and should be appalled that such a statement is even necessary. That said, it is. Removing busy work can take many forms such as changing an SQL query, adding a database index, reducing abstraction for specific cases, reusing reusable objects instead of creating new ones at every iteration, and using the right data model/algorithm for the job. Ideally when you get done the software is faster while using fewer CPU cycles and the originating developer has been educated as to how it should have been coded to begin with.

Using fewer CPU cycles directly relates to the new environmental movement. The fewer CPU cycles a computer is using the less heat is being generated and the less electricity is used to both power the CPU and cool the data center. In addition, the fewer CPU cycles required by a single application the more applications can reasonably share a pool of CPU resources (either on the same server, sharing via virtualized hardware such as AIX LPARs, or sharing via virtualized software such as VMWare, AIX WPARs, or Solaris Zones). The more applications you can cram on a single physical server efficiently using server’s resources the fewer servers you need, the less electricity you use, and the greener you are.

Thus my assertion is that performance engineers are green engineers. And not to make a too lofty point of it, but we play an important role of directly reducing the CO2 emissions from the IT industry, which currently accounts for 2% overall — the same as the airline industry. And if done well, the software we create just might help with reducing the other 98%.

The Ctrl-Z President?

There comes a time in all great nations when it’s necessary to hit the brakes and back up. My hope is that today we’ll start to see Obama hit Ctrl-Z several dozen times such as:

  • Rerouting funding for abstinence-only education to programs that provide education on and help obtaining condoms and birth control.
  • Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and allow everyone who wishes serve their country with dignity and not in hiding.
  • Repeal the “Defense of Marriage” Act and federally recognize same-sex unions, under whatever label, just as the federal government does opposite-sex unions.
  • Provide more stringent requirements on the financial industry to prevent a occurrence of this last financial fubar.
  • Hold all government agencies responsible for constitutional violations such as warrant-less wiretapping and ensure future violations do not occur.
  • Mandate more fuel-efficient vehicles and remove our dependency on foreign oil.
  • Listen to scientists who tell you the environment and planet is going to hell in a handbasket and act on the information.

Most of the above (with the exception of DADT) were done under Bush’s watch, if not by his hand. I’m hoping over the next few months we’ll see Obama make judicious use of Ctrl-Z and undoing some of Bush’s (and in the case of DADT, Clinton’s) screwups either via Executive Order or working with Congress. I don’t think Obama is the nation’s savior and I don’t think I’ll be happy with everything he’ll do, but for the first time in 5-8 years I have some confidence in our executive branch.

And, borrowing from my friend Mark, lets hope the undo buffer is big enough to support these actions.

SUVs bite the dust

While out in California visiting Meg a few weeks ago I was told that car dealerships in the San Jose area had stopped accepting SUVs as trade-ins. I’m not sure the accuracy of that but I don’t disbelieve it — particularly given this article from Wired: http://blog.wired.com/cars/2008/06/rising-gas-pric.html. My favorite part of the article (and there are lots of good parts) is:

General Motors is looking to unload Hummer, the epitome of gas-guzzling excess, after sales fell 60 percent in May. The number of Civics sold in one month exceed the number of Hummers GM expects to sell all year.

Economics and environmentalism

My husband is annoyed at how Green I have become. Those of you who know us will likely not find this surprising. Part of it, however, is his fault, albeit indirectly, due to his economics class and the ensuing conversations. I somehow escaped high school and college without a single economics class and was intrigued with some of the concepts he was learning such as the concepts of a ‘public good’ and ‘private good’. Specifically his example that air was a public good as breathing air does not decrease the air available for others (so it is non-rivalrous) and breathing air does not prevent others from breathing it (it is non-excludable). From a scientific standpoint that is factually incorrect: if I breath the oxygen out of the air, you can’t breath it. I’m sure an economist would wave their hands at the issue and say “but plants just convert the carbon dioxide we exhale into oxygen — your example is too narrow” and he or she may well be right if they discounted environmental issues. That did get me wondering how economists calculate environmental impacts into their evaluations.

Fast forward to the article The Economist Has No Clothes by Robert Nadeau in the April 2008 edition of Scientific American. In the article the author asserts that the current formulas being used by economists, by definition, do not include environmental impact:

Because neoclassical economics does not even acknowledge the costs of environmental problems and the limits to economic growth, it constitutes one of the greatest barriers to combating climate change and other threads to the planet.

Ah – so the answer to my question is that they don’t — economic reports just ignore environmental impacts.

Later in the class Benjamin did a report showing how online music purchases has increased public good. This, in particular, opened up to me a fascinating line of thought. The general logic was that if people downloaded music instead of purchasing physical copies of CDs it would decrease the manufacture of CDs and free up resources for other purposes. During our conversation it occurred to me that downloading music, and other media like movies, is more environmentally friendly than borrowing or buying physical copies be they new or used. Not only does it save in physical media (less end-of-life costs due to landfill) but in the amount of greenhouse gas released due to gas. Yes, gasoline. If demand for physical CDs decreases, manufacturers will create fewer CDs which will decrease the amount of merchandise shipped to stores resulting in either fewer trips or the use of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles for the transportation. Not to mention the obvious savings of gas for people making trips to their favorite box store to purchase one.

That got me thinking about other things like DVDs: should I feel good or bad about my Netflix subscription? On the plus side I’m not purchasing a copy (reduce and reuse) but it still has to be mailed to me (transportation costs and mailer waste). After some thought I decided that, in general, I should feel good about Netflix. Yes, the mailman has to deliver it to me but he’s coming to my house every day regardless if there is a movie in the mail or not so while it doesn’t have a zero cost it has a near-zero cost compared to me getting in a car and driving to Blockbuster, for example. Even better would be to stream the videos directly from their website (the lack of Linux-compatible video player notwithstanding). This resulted in the creation of a list containing possible movie-watching options from most environmentally friendly to least:

  • Netflix Instant Watching
  • Netflix DVD rentals
  • Borrowing DVDs from friends that live closer to you than the local video store
  • Driving to local video store to rent DVD
  • Buying DVD from online retailer who ships via USPS
  • Driving to local box store to buy DVD

Note that “Buying DVD from online retailer who ships via UPS/Fedex” didn’t make the list. If the driver was already going to be in your neighborhood to deliver something else, it probably ranks around “Driving to local video store”. If they have to drive much further than the distance between your place and the box store, it probably comes in dead last.

I came up with a slew of others, all of which are obvious after you think about it. Like for produce:

  • Growing your own produce
  • Buying produce grown locally
  • Buying produce grown regionally
  • Buying produce grown nationally
  • Buying produce grown internationally

Or commuting:

  • Telecommuting
  • Commuting via walking or biking
  • Commuting via public transportation
  • Commuting via car pool
  • Driving by yourself

Or music:

  • Buying music via the internet (iTunes, Amazon, etc)
  • Borrowing CDs from friends
  • Buying used CDs
  • Buying new CDs

See, not rocket science but I never considered the environmental benefit from buying music online prior to the economics conversation. This seems like an under-marketed area for online retailers.

I predict that we’ll see a Tipping Point for digital vs physical media in the next few years after which physical DVDs and CDs will go the way of the 8-track yielding both economic and environmental benefits. I just hope the movie and music providers get past their shortsighted DRM tactics prior to the Tipping Point or it will be a step backwards for consumers (although part of me wonders if the Tipping Point can even occur until content is provided DRM-free).