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The climate is turning against owning our own compute hardware. Cloud is good for you and your customers

From the data centre to the desktop, here is the green solution

Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you the reader choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you're in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular.

This week's motion is: Renting hardware on a subscription basis is bad for customers.

Call it leasing, equipment rental, or hardware as a service, the idea of NOT owning your computing devices has been around for years. However, many individuals and corporations have been distinctly ambivalent about the idea, feeling that the benefits tend to flow to the suppliers, and most of all, the financers.

Yet the cloud means many organisations have gotten used to not owning all of the server infrastructure their businesses depend on. And the shift to remote working over the last year or two means many IT departments don’t even meet their users – let alone physically touch the client equipment they’re using. Lastly, sustainability and environmental concerns mean individuals and corporations are thinking harder about the broader costs of “owning” hardware. So, are hardware subscriptions the way forward?

Our first contributor writing AGAINST the motion is Anne Currie, a veteran techie and author of the sci-fi Panopticon series.

From the perspective of where the world is now, the answer to whether to buy data center hardware or hire it is easy. Hire it.

Whether you believe in climate change, or just think Australia and California have gone a bit OTT on the barbies recently, reducing carbon emissions is clearly the way the world is heading, so get with the program. If you bet your company strategy on anything else, you’re crazy. Like it or not, “hire or buy?” is a green decision and there’s only one way to go.

For end-user devices, the amount of carbon released during their manufacturing swamps the CO2 from the electricity used to run them. That’s because users are crap at looking after hardware and their phones and tablets break or get chucked away way too early in their life cycles. However, we can’t entirely blame users. Hardware management is non-trivial, and working devices too often have to be binned because of the end of security support.

In hyperscale-cloud data centers, the situation is completely different. For servers, more carbon is emitted from the electricity that goes into operating them than goes into making them. That’s a good thing. It means they’re well maintained and get maximum use throughout their lifetime. The hyperscale folks know what they’re doing and scale works for this kind of thing. Machines that are shared between multiple tenants achieve vastly higher server utilization, which means they do more useful work over their lifetimes.

Producing hardware is resource intensive, so we need to get the most out of it. That means the greenest thing to do is to have the best specialists manage your servers for you. If you’re managing your own, the first question to ask yourself is, are you Google, Microsoft, or AWS? If yes, fill yer boots. If not, what are you playing at? You might as well be repeatedly punching your grandchildren in the face.

The people renting their hardware to you have every incentive to maximize their asset, and are better placed than you to extend the life of it. It’s their business. This is the whole idea behind product service systems: they achieve greater sustainability through more intensive utilization over the life of the product.

From an eco perspective, the answer to “hire or buy?” is hire. Of course, that assumes the folk you are hiring from are up to the job and doing the right thing by keeping their machines alive as long as possible. The hyperscale clouds seem to be, but it’s not so clear for other suppliers. You can’t just assume they’re doing the right thing. But if you ask, you might well get. If you don't even inquire what their plan is for minimizing carbon, the end of the world is really on you just as much as them.

In the good old days, we all took advantage of fossil fuels and didn’t worry much about it – in fact, commercially it was the smart move. That’s no longer the case. Even the oil companies are waking up to the fact that even moderately radical legislation may finally be coming. They’re starting to sweat.

Don’t lock yourself into the old world and find yourself lumbered with unexpected embodied carbon fees for your hardware when disposal time comes around. Don’t think you will? Well, it’s your funeral. Learn from 2020 – from now on, anything could happen. ®

Cast your vote below. We'll close the poll on Thursday night and publish the final result on Friday. You can track the debate's progress here.

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