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Dom Robinson Talks Streaming Sustainability and the LESS Accord

Tim Siglin, Founding Executive Director, Help Me Stream Research Foundation, and Contributing Editor, Streaming Media, sits down with Dom Robinson, Founder, Greening of Streaming, to discuss streaming sustainability and the LESS Accord in this exclusive interview from Streaming Media East 2023, conducted shortly before Robinson's general session, Sustainability Beyond Greenwashing.

What the Statistics Say About Streaming Energy Consumption

Siglin mentions that he and Robinson wrote a Streaming Media article together back in 2020, The Greening of Streaming, and that now Robinson founded the award-winning organization Greening of Streaming. “So you've been making the rounds to a number of different conferences talking about sustainability,” Siglin says to Robinson. “Why is that important to you, and why are you spending the time to do that?”

“Well, I don't really like giving out too many statistics,” Robinson says. “[But] we do need one just to get a sense of what's going on. With global final electricity demand for data centers sitting at about 1% of supply and telecoms sitting at about 1.5% percent, and information and communications technology (ICT) as a whole sitting at about 6% to 8% with streaming, driving much of the demand for that network capability and the devices in the home streaming is probably driving demand for around somewhere between 2% and 3% of the global final electricity supply.”

“Which is essentially the same as aerospace,” Siglin notes.

“It is sort of orders of magnitude,” Robinson says. “Just to give a sense of scale, one of the stats I saw was making a comparison between the entire coal-powered energy output from Germany…[it is] the equivalent to the energy being consumed by streaming in Europe, and so green streaming has tried to acknowledge that. The industry as a whole is retrofitting energy considerations to its operations. It's something we didn't think about. We thought the telcos and the data centers would just sort that out, and now we've become the ‘tail that wags the dog’ as a group. We're trying to take some responsibility for that and make sure that we're doing the best we can.”

What Are Some Novel Approaches for Lowering Streaming Energy Consumption?

Siglin says that there are already approaches being made towards designing more efficient tech and equipment for streaming, and he wonders what the best practices might be for retrofitting current gear to lower power consumption.

“There's a sister organization to ours which is really entirely comprised of data center architects,” Robinson says. “In talking to those folks, we discovered models where a streaming engineer might spin up an encoder to do a live transcode in the clouds, and then for high availability of redundancy, they'll spin up a second one so that they've got a dual path redundancy, and so although one would probably do the job with maybe a risk of a few seconds of outage a month, we have to just in case. Because we want to offer high availability on talking to the data center architects, they're completely blind to the application, but they want to offer a service level agreement (SLA) for their cloud. So the cloud operator sees the first live transcoder gets sort of instantiated and goes, ‘Oh, somebody wants some computer resource. I want to offer them a high availability scale. I'll spin up a hot standby.’ And then the second live transcoding encoder comes online, and the data center goes, ‘Oh, he's got another computer request. I have no idea what it's doing, but I want to make sure.’ So you end up actually with four computers hot when you only need one just in case you have a couple of seconds, downtime a month…without anyone even knowing because they're not talking. So what we are trying to do as Greening of Streaming is to facilitate and drive that conversation across all the groups in the industry, across the standards, bodies, [and] actors to just make sure we all take a moment to stop and think about whether we're actually architecting these things well and sensibly.”

What is the LESS Accord?

Siglin says, “One of the things we're doing from a practical standpoint is asking the industry – now that Greening of Streaming is an organization that's been around for about two years – we're now going to say, can we do more with less? ‘LESS,’ of course, being the acronym that stands for…”

“It's the Low Energy Sustainable Streaming Accord,” Robinson says. “The aim is to really have an overarching narrative so that while we all work with encoding or caching or transmission or whatever it is in our little silos, we're quite good at reducing the energy. But we're not necessarily aware of whether we're passing increased energy problems or adverse unintended consequences up and down the supply chain. And that's why we need to have that group conversation. The LESS Accord is really all [the] idea that maybe we as an industry could decide on an energy efficiency first codec implementation or set up or layout of workflow where all the channel hopping, all the fast switching, all the default streams are – let's straw man here – 2K H.264 because H.264 is supported in hardware decoding, or 2K is efficient for caching and so on. We generally get the service we want. And then potentially, if you really want to watch the sports in Ultra High Definition resolution (UHD), you can press a button and upscale…the onus then becomes interactive on you to opt into the energy inefficiency because you're getting value from it.”

Robinson emphasizes that UHD is not generally necessary for ordinary programmings, such as shows for children and cooking presentations. “Do the consumers really need that?” he wonders. “And certainly, do they need that by default? So the LESS Accord is really an attempt to find out what those energy efficiencies might be, ask the industry, and then actually see if they're practical.”

“We're not constraining LESS to a single idea,” Siglin says. “We're essentially saying, ‘Any place along the supply chain, whether it's the acquisition piece, whether it's the post-production piece, whether it's the delivery, staging, etc. We're really looking for ideas across all of them.”

“That’s right,” Robinson says. “We get lots of input from codec vendors because obviously, it's a high compute, very volatile environment. I'm really glad we started with network services because it's a minefield. It's extraordinarily complicated. And if I [have] one word of caution: if you hear people saying that gigabytes equate to kilograms of carbon, walk away from that data set and think hard about it because we are being kind of pushed into that and pushed into an idea that reducing bandwidth saves energy and there is very little if any, evidence to correlate that…In fact, confusingly, actually driving traffic and the economic ability of a network to upgrade to more power [efficiency] counterintuitively might bring more energy efficiency quicker. So that's the most complicated challenge we've had.”

Siglin says that emerging streaming markets such as Africa are unique zones for testing out new ideas for energy efficiency. “We're going to be walking into delivering solutions in a place where there's no legacy,” he says. “So we could possibly do it in a much more efficient way than you would if you have to deal with all the legacy gear.”

Why Greening of Streaming Faces Skepticisms and Challenges From Big Tech

Robinson speaks about the challenges of getting big tech entities fully on board with the aims of the Greening of Streaming organization. “It's been really complicated for these operations to retrofit energy and get their ducks in a row,” he says. “And they're extremely exposed to saying the wrong thing. So they're very cautious. They wanted to get their own house in order and feel like they knew where they were coming from. We had the same when Microsoft joined. It takes a long time for these organizations to come forward and join an organization whose cardinal rule is no greenwashing. They have to be sure they're not going to get thrown out on day one because that would be, for their scale of operation, a market-effecting thing.” However, he notes that Greening of Streaming has reached a significant positive tipping point. “We're about 25, 30 members, and an increasing number of affiliations with trade associations and peers as well,” he says. “So it's very exciting.”

Siglin says, “I think we both owe a debt of gratitude to Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen, who pushed the idea forward enough to get a public discussion going. It's been really nice to see his interest, your interest, my interests…it now coalesces into this thing where we can help drive forward these ideas.”

Robinson also gives a shout-out to others who have paved the way for greener streaming. “Barbara Lang in particular,” he says. “A key enabler with her industry contacts and support and sheer energy. She's a fantastic asset. And that's not to dismiss any of the members. There are about 130 people now active in the group across 25 members. So it’s a really nice and very diverse group.”

Siglin says, “I think we also should mention the fact that we have partnerships with a number of organizations from EBU to SVTA to the CDN Alliance…”

“We're really trying just to make the industry think about this as an issue and take it seriously and not greenwash themselves and tick boxes,” Robinson says. “What I like most is we appeal to the engineers. There is a direct action element…that we, as the engineers, give our bosses a menu of options and we can actually sit there and decide that there is no inefficiency option.”

“And to a certain extent, what we're doing is democratizing that for them as well,” Siglin says. “Especially with the Environmental, Social, and Corporate governance (ESG) in play now, their bosses are looking for ideas on ways to make it more sustainable, and if the engineers have engaged with us at this level to be able to bubble those things up and say, ‘Oh, by the way, here are two or three things that are happening in the industry, we ought to consider doing one of these.”

“Exactly,” Robinson says. “I mean, it'll be a while before we publish best practices because, while many organizations are moving quickly – Paris Accord pressures and those sorts of things are very important. There is a little bit of a mantra of ‘Don't let perfect be the enemy of good’ amongst that community. The problem with our engineering is you have to be perfect. If we engineer the wrong thing and go down a cul-de-sac, we're going to waste a lot of resources. We need to know exactly what is making the real effect and do that because we're doing it at such enormous scale in our industry.”

Learn more about the greening of streaming at Streaming Media Connect 2023.

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