A Sustainable Flying Sphinx?

In which I muse about what a sustainable web service could look like - but first, the backstory:

A year ago - almost to the day - I sat in a wine bar in Sydney’s Surry Hills with Steve Hopkins. I’d been thinking about how to get Sphinx working on Heroku, and ran him through the basic idea in my head of how it could work. His first question was “So, what are you working on tomorrow, then?”

By the end of the following day, I had some idea of how it would work. Over the next few months I had a proof of concept working, hit some walls, began again, and finally got to a point where I could launch an alpha release of Flying Sphinx.

In May, Flying Sphinx became available for all Heroku users - and earlier today (five months later), I received my monthly provider payment from Heroku, with the happy news that I’m now earning enough to cover all related ongoing expenses - things like AWS for the servers, Scalarium to manage them, and Tender for support.

Now, I’m not rolling in cash, and I’m certainly not earning enough through Flying Sphinx to pay rent, let alone be in a position to drop all client work and focus on Flying Sphinx full-time. That’s cool, either of those targets would be amazing.

And of course, money isn’t the be all and end all - even though this is a business, and I certainly don’t want to run at a loss. I want Flying Sphinx to be sustainable - in that it covers not only the hosting costs, but my time as well, along with supporting the broader system around it - code, people and beyond.

But what does a sustainable web service look like, particularly beyond the standard (outmoded) financial axis?

Sustainable Time

Firstly (and selfishly), it should cover the time spent maintaining and expanding the service. Flying Sphinx doesn’t use up a huge amount of my time right at the moment, but I’m definitely keen to improve a few things (in particular, offer Sphinx 2.0.1 alongside the existing 1.10-beta installation), and there is the occasional support query to deal with.

This one’s relatively straight-forward, really - I can track all time spent on Flying Sphinx and multiply that by a decent hourly rate. If it turns out I can’t manage all the work myself, then I pay someone else to help.

It certainly doesn’t look like I’m going to need anyone helping in the near future, mind you - nor am I drowning in support requests.

Sustainable Software

Ignoring the time I spend writing code for Flying Sphinx (as that’s covered by the previous section), pretty much every other piece of software involved with the service is open source. Front and centre among these is Sphinx itself.

I certainly don’t expect to be paid for my own open source contributions, but it certainly helps when there’s some funds trickling in to help motivate dealing with support questions, fixing bugs and adding features. It can also provide a stronger base to build a community as well.

With this in mind, I’m considering setting aside a percentage of any profit for Sphinx development - as any improvements to that help make Flying Sphinx a stronger offering.

(I could also cover my time spent on Thinking Sphinx either with a percentage cut - either way it would end up in my pocket though.)

Sustainable Hardware

This is where things get a little trickier - we’re not just dealing with bits and electrons, but also silicon and metals. The human race is pretty bad at weaning itself off of limited (as opposed to renewable) resources, and the hardware industry certainly is going to hit some limits in the future as certain metals become harder to source.

Of course, the servers use a lot of energy, so one thing I will be doing is offsetting the carbon. I’ve not yet figured out the best service to do this, but will start by looking at Brighter Planet.

From a social perspective, there’s also questions about how those resources are sourced. We should be considering the working conditions of where the metals are mined (and by whom), the people who are soldering the logic boards, and those who place the finished products into racks in data centres.

As an example, let’s look at Amazon. Given the recent issues raised with the conditions for staff in their warehouses, I think it’s fair to seek clarification on the situation of their web service colleagues. And what if there were significant ethical issues for using AWS? What then for Flying Sphinx, which runs EC2 instances and is an add-on for Heroku, a business built entirely on top of Amazon’s offerings?

I could at least use servers elsewhere - but that means bandwidth between servers and Heroku apps starts to cost money - and we introduce a step of latency into the service. Neither of those things are ideal. Or I could just say that I don’t want to support Amazon at all, and shut down Flying Sphinx, remove all my Heroku apps, and find some other hosting service to use.

Am I getting a little too carried away? Perhaps, but this is all hypothetical anyway. I’m guessing Amazon’s techs are looked after decently (though I’d love some confirmation on this), and am hoping the situation improves for their warehouse staff as well.

I am still searching for answers for what truly sustainable hardware - and moreso, sustainable web services - financially, socially, environmentally, and technically. What’s your take? What have I forgotten?

Jean-Michel GARNIER left a comment on 20 Feb, 2012:

At euruko 201, I made some crude comment about your carbon footprint coming to Berlin and Australia carbon footprint.

After reading that post, I have to apologize publicly. I did not know you and made a very premature judgement.

Regarding sustainability, Germany is the country to follow. Australia has so much sun that I expect solar panels to power datacenters as soon as there will be some political will and awareness.

pat left a comment on 11 Mar, 2012:

Hi Jean-Michel

Thanks for your apology, although I didn’t take offence. I know the carbon impact of such a trip isn’t great, and it’s a major disadvantage of being in Melbourne. I certainly opt for carbon offsets for the flights I take, though I know not taking the flight in the first place would be better.

That said, I will be back in Europe for Euruko this year, but I’ll be staying for four months, to make the most of such a long (and environmentally shocking) trip.

And yes, things in Australia could certainly improve dramatically with regards to solar power if we had the political will - the big question is whether we will ever have such will from those in power. I’m sadly not expecting it any time in the next few years. Europe generally (and much closer to home, New Zealand) seems to be far smarter than us.