– Zoom vs Teams? Here’s Who Is Most Sustainable
The publication of the IPCC report on Climate Change made for sobering reading. Unless you’ve been living on the planet Mars for the last month (perhaps if Musk and Bezos get their way then Mars might be the only place we can live), you’ll know that we’ve got vanishingly small chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change unless we take a pretty drastic course correction.
This has got me thinking about tech ethics in a different way. I’ve written extensiely in the past about the Corporate Governance that is required by companies who design, sell or implement digital technology, and I’ve also covered the Social Justice issues that stem from thoughtless technology design, but I’ve not really covered Environmental Sustainability in sufficien depth, and over recent weeks it’s a topic I’ve been giving a lot of thought to.
Last month I wrote a piece on the ‘4 R’s of Sustainable Tech’ which hopefully got some of you thinking about how we as consumers and users of technology can make change through what we do.
Since then, I’ve been thinking further about the tools we use each day and whether there are clues we can find as to whether their designers have given adequate regard to the consequence of their systems if successful and in widespread use. And this got me thinking. I use video-conferencing every day (and most of each day!) – which platform is the most sustainable, Zoom or Teams?
To be sure, this isn’t a scientific study – I’m going to need to do a lot more work to achieve that, but what I’ve done is designed a simple system that monitors the CPU type of various systems and checked the load of each under different conditions such as differing numbers of users, different call characteristics, and also looking at the location of the users monitored – we’ve made some inferences as to not just the energy consumption, but the carbon footprint too.
Here’s what I’ve discovered:
Which is the most sustainable platform: Zoom or Teams?
Zoom. Hands down.
My initial data shows that Teams uses 2-3 times more CPU time than Zoom for video calls. This translates into C02 assuming you’re running your computer on a dirty energy supply, as many CPUs increase their energy draw depending on how hard they are working, and even if they don’t that extra CPU-time could be used for doing other things.
The reason for the difference I believe comes down to two things:
1) Zoom is a lighter-weight platform that isn’t trying to do as much as Teams (this is evident in that Zoom is just a 26Mb download whereas Teams is 4x larger at 105Mb.
2) I suspect that the team at Zoom have been more thorough with code-optimisation (although there is no way to prove this without access to the source-code and co-operation from the vendors).
What difference does video make?
In fact, you could use 75% less electricity if you turn off video.
The detail is a little more nuanced than this. The difference is more pronounced with calls with low number of participants, whereas with lots of participants (8+) the difference is negligable.
This, unfortunately, goes against the grain with how we actually use such platforms. I know that when I’m having a 1:1 call with someone I like to have video on, and likewise with small groups – but when I’m on a big webinar that has tens or hundreds of participants, then I prefer just to turn off my camera and disappear into the background.
And virtual backgrounds?
So here’s the punchline. If you want to save the planet, then tidy up behind your home office chair and never ever use a virtual background.
Sure, blurring your background is cool – and who doesn’t want to pretend that they are in Tony Stark’s Lab? (Khizar – I’m looking at you) but seriously – you could be using up to 18% more electricity under certain circumstances and in most cases at least 2-5% more simply because you’ve clicked that button.
The reason is that despite advances in Machine Learning, you’re still putting your computer under an enormous additional strain trying to work out which bit of the image is you and which bit is your floral wallpaper. On a new Apple M1 chip the difference is much less pronounced, but on my late-2012 Mac Mini – turning on the virtual background is a disaster.
Here, the answer is much less clear-cut – so it’s a ‘it depends’, but simply put – Teams is more efficient on Windows and Zoom more efficient on a Mac. If you’re using a new Apple Silicon device then Zoom is using a fractional amount of CPU time. Kudos to Team Zoom for clearly putting a lot of thought into code optimisation.
And that’s really the punchline – while we all fret about the location of data centres and ensuring that the energy they run on comes from sustainable sources, the biggest difference that software companies can make is to ensure their code is well optimised as they have such little control of the CO2 profile of their users there can be a massive impact of sloppy software on the planet.
If you’re wondering about other platforms like Google Meet, GoToMeeting and others – well, hold your hats – I’m currently about to kick off a bigger project that looks more broadly at collaboration platforms and evaluates the difference that each make to energy consumption when doing common tasks.
A final word on this. I did write to both Zoom Video Communications Inc and Microsoft and asked them for comment on this project, but only heard back from Microsoft. I guess this says as much about the relative maturity of each organisation from the perspective of dealing with external requests for information on these topics, but what Microsoft came back to me with was interesting:
They shared this from their 1st year progress report on sustainability (Page 25): “the rise of data and AI means we must also pursue a variety of approaches to increase efficiency in AI hardware and software”. While my analysis of the computational efficiency of Teams clearly shows that Microsoft isn’t going far enough yet, it’s exciting that they recognise that this previously niche domain within the computer science industry is soon to become more mainstream.
Perhaps though the biggest champion from this project is Apple whose M1 system-on-a-chip design is frankly breathtaking from an efficiency perspective (actually, kudos should probably go to ARM, but that’s a different story). But, don’t all go and rush out and upgrade your Mac just yet. The fact that my nearly decade old Mac can still run the latest version of MacOS admirably as well as tackle all my daily needs such as video conferencing is testament to a) how well engineered Apple gear is (and how upgradable their old kit was), and b) how your environmental footprint is always going to be lower by re-using old tech, than rushing out and buying new.