Addressing Energy Consumption in the Streaming Industry: Valuable Insights from Greening of Streaming

Greening of Streaming is a ‘Not For Profit’ organisation and a members association that aims to improve engineering and foster collaboration within the global internet streaming industry to minimize its impact on the environment. By working on providing real-world data and sharing best practices, the association strives to enhance energy efficiency and promote sustainability throughout the technical supply chain of streaming services.

Climate change, biodiversity losses, resource depletion, pollution paint a sad picture of our world today and makes environmental concerns unavoidable in any industry or aspects of peoples’ lives. However, we are still far away of getting everyone aware of the seriousness of this picture, let alone having a consensus on how to establish a more sustainable way of living. Moreover, the challenges are  highly demanding in any industry, where every participant is evidently engaged in a competitive struggle for their market share.

That is why initiatives like GoS are so important. Considering the World Energy Saving Day this October 21st, a date created to raise awareness of the use of natural resources to produce energy and the impact of energy consumption on the environment, we wanted to make GoS’ voice and activities resonate through this interview Greening of Streaming founder, Dom Robinson.

 

Interview with Dom Robinson - founder of Greening of Streaming

Broadpeak: What is GoS and how did it start? 

Dom Robinson: GoS grew out of conversations in the sidelines of the Streaming Media and Content Delivery Summit conferences and 2020 and 2021 precipitated into a members association formed from technology vendors, service operators and online publishers. We are principally focused on raising energy efficiency as a primary design principle for engineering streaming systems. Until now energy efficiency has largely been an afterthought. We want to change that and make it a first-class design principle.

Since streaming involves long complex shared supply chains, we know that technical choices we make as we design a streaming service can potentially make significant changes to overall power consumption through those systems. We are working to understand that relationship, and to do so very practically.

Reducing the energy demand of global video distribution models reduces the cost of operations. It also reduces the demand / consumption of resources required to provision the physical infrastructures that underpin those distribution models, from fuel to rare earth metals and ‘truck rolls’ to locate kit.

Broadpeak: Is energy reduction the one area in which our industry can have a bigger impact?

Dom Robinson: Anecdotally some estimates have suggested that streaming may create a demand for as much as ~3% of global final electricity supply. I stress that this is the only data point I give at the moment. It is not ours – it is an informal conflation of energy data from 2021 from the IEA and it estimates that ICT as a whole uses ~8% of electricity (note these are not the usual ‘emissions’ figures – these are purely electricity demand regardless of source). 

This includes the home kit, the telecoms and the data centres which between them comprise about 3% – and Cisco and others commonly estimate that 70% of all network traffic is now streaming. To that end, including all the TVs and streaming boxes in homes, we conflated the number to ‘about 3%’ – but other estimates range from 2% to 11% so we have decided to approximate to 3%.

Whatever the number, the order of magnitude is significant. Thats many 10s (possibly 100s) of municipal scale power stations.

However there is a reason we don’t talk about numbers very much. While there are many theories and conjectures about how much energy streaming demands, there is almost no real world measurement of live systems going on. Most of the sustainability claims are based on lab experiments.

As a group of engineers who build global, dynamic network for streaming, we want actionable energy data to drive operations, strategy and innovation.

We believe that creating some accord in the measurement across the industry and doing that through practical project work is effective not only in practically developing solutions, but even if those projects fail, we will all learn together and this will help the industry progress faster to a collectively lowered energy demand. The interdependence of streaming systems means a change in one system can have significant unintended consequences elsewhere.

 Collaboration and a ‘we only win if we win together’ attitude is the most effective mode to solve the ‘right’ problems and change the course of the industry. If we could collectively reduce that 3% to 2% that might be a significant benefit to consumers of the streams in terms of cost, and to the environment in terms of our resource demand from the consumer electronics, telco and datacentre providers.

Broadpeak: Is there any consensus yet on how to make the streaming industry more sustainable?

Dom Robinson:  Ha ha … no!

Seriously though, there are various approaches to addressing the challenges of energy consumption in streaming. While the wider issues of responsible usage are important, the focus in streaming engineering is on where architecture impacts energy. The assumption that video compression reduces energy usage is being questioned, as not sending video streams does not impact network capacity or energy consumption. Many digital media organizations aim to reduce bitrate to be more sustainable, assuming that using less data saves energy. 

However, energy and price do not respond to the same factors. The streaming industry is now retrofitting energy considerations into its design after being a small part of the internet for decades. The main difficulty lies in reaching a common understanding, but engineers are eager to collaborate and solve problems once they are well defined. While the industry has only been actively exploring this issue for a few years, progress is being made, including efforts by GoS. Collaboration and input from others are also welcomed.

 

Greening of Streaming members
Members of Greening of Streaming

Broadpeak: In your opinion, what are some innovative technologies or practices that can help reduce the energy consumption of streaming platforms? 

Dom Robinson: At all stages of the supply chain the key is to try to power off (or at least down) systems that are ‘waiting’ to be used. Inevitably significant amounts of energy are wasted in ‘hot standbys’ or excessive capacity reservations or hosts waiting for a virtual computer to be launched.

While reducing data bitrates and quantities doesn’t really effect much to do with Energy in the CDN and the network, storing it does drive a demand for storage resources. Storage Data Centres in Norway are leading the way for long-tail storage since they are hydroelectric powered, extremely efficient and construction in mountains leads to steady temperatures. They also have 1-hop connectivity to NYC, London and Amsterdam so are extremely well connected. Such DC models are paving the way.

Within the DC, through our LESS Accord Project 4, we are taking an interest in immersion cooling and also in moving workloads to take advantage of wasted renewable energy otherwise lost in wind turbines. Those are big slow moving ‘real-world’ projects (as opposed to ‘virtual’ software only ones) but they are potentially straightforward ways to leverage our capabilities with distributed compute and take advantage of resources in new and innovative ways.

In the encoding space we are only at the beginning of understanding how key factors such as codec, bitrate, aspect ratio HDR / SDR and so on affect the end to end system. There has been a lot of assumption, and in practice there is a lot of work in independent silos too – each company is working to streamline their production and resource management and operation energy.

But what we are still to understand is how these elements are interdependent. That is our core focus in GoS. If we reduce encoding energy we may find we load more decoding effort on 30m set top boxes, so a saving of 500W at the core of a workflow, may lead to many GW of energy being loaded onto the grid by consumer devices. And end to end picture must be developed before we head down the wrong engineering cul-de-sac.

Broadpeak: Are there any specific steps that streaming companies can take to promote sustainable production and distribution of content? 

Dom Robinson: WeAreAlbert (BAFTA) is a great initiative to explore for the specifics of sustainable production. It is not an area that Greening of Streaming focusses on as a whole, although increasingly we do see remote production and other tools emerging. It is key to note that while a virtual / remote production strategy can move energy hungry on-prem technologies into the cloud and off the production companie’s energy-balance sheet, there is absolutely no proof yet that doing so leads to an overall energy reduction. Cloud hosts are on, even if the production company is not running a virtual host on that machine. I would caution anyone who simply views ‘The Cloud’ as a panacea.

As for understanding the distribution impacts I would suggest getting involved in Greening of Streaming to better understand the challenges before making any claims.

While we are all under pressure to meet the Paris Accord timescales, spending huge amount of time and resource on the WRONG strategy can both be a waste of time, and can actually damage support networks who become invested and then disappointed.

It is much better to promote a mind set of ‘we don’t know but we are trying to honestly find out’ than to get caught up with trying to promote yourselves as ‘best green solution’ or ‘based on assumptions this is the most sustainable solution’ – after all we cannot ‘win’ the sustainability competition – this is one where we only win if we we together.

So ultimately always promote share thinking and collaboration. Do not seek to differentiate on your sustainability strategy – be different by sharing the best ideas and making sure the industry changes path together.

Broadpeak: How can the streaming industry address concerns and challenges related to greenwashing, ensuring that genuine efforts towards sustainability are communicated transparently and accurately to the viewers? 

Dom Robinson: The issue of greenwashing is important to consider in the streaming and broadcast industry. While there is generally noble intent behind sustainability claims, flaws in the underlying science or a narrow focus on a specific area can occur. However, it is worth noting that active misinformation is rare in this industry. Claims that reducing traffic saves energy should be approached with caution, as it is the carrier signal, not the modulation, that consumes energy in telecommunications. Therefore, the correlation between data usage and CO2 emissions is weak, and focusing on measuring and reducing kWh usage is a more practical engineering approach. The Greening of Streaming community strictly adheres to the rule of “No Greenwashing,” which is enforced through open peer review. Collaborating and being honest are far more valuable than striving to be the greenest through competition.

Broadpeak: What are GoS goals for the one year ahead, how can organisations get involved?

Dom Robinson: By this time next year we aim to have real-world energy data collection models deployed in production networks, encoding farms and in an increasing number of volunteer’s homes to measure their Media and Entertainment consumer equipment. As those systems are deployed we hope to line them up and run some practical experiments to see if  changing elements that we, as streaming architects, can directly influence energy across the end to end system; elements  such as bitrate, codec, dynamic range, pixel and color config format, caching architecture, multicast support and more.

As the data from these models starts to flow, we will be focussing on kWh, and architecting to improve that, but our hardware vendor members, and also a growing group of academics and climate science experts will be offered our data to help us understand thier interpretations of how we are impacting sustainability.

Through that platform we intend to reduce the guesswork and turn our engineers to optimisation based on actionable data. With further time and collaboration with many SDOs and other peer organisations we plan to stop the guesswork and conjecture that has hithertofore been guiding the industry architectural strategy and move to a paradigm where we can even start to optimise in real-time against energy data from within our extensive global networks.

We strongly encourage operators, vendors, architects and standards development groups from across the streaming industry to get involved and join us. Upfront, we are not an inexpensive organisation to join; we want c-suite ‘bought in’ rather than the marketing department simply ‘buy a badge’ – so joining Greening of Streaming is a commitment for your organisation. Once you are members, as many of your company can get involved as are interested and motivated, and across the 9 working groups and 4 less accord projects there is something for every element of the corporate community to take an active interest in.

Those fees then underpin the research we are undertaking and help us resource further grant applications and inter-SDO coalitions to ensure the broadest possible research and industry involvement we can.

You can find out more at www.GreeningofStreaming.org/membership or by reaching out to me on info@greeningofstreaming.org

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