The digital sector accounts for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of that impact comes from hardware, networks and data centers. But what about the code and applications they all run on? Developers and engineers have a key role to play in limiting the impact of their work, including the software and websites they create. But how?
That’s what we set out to explore with a panel of experts late October, further to our “How can engineers make IT more sustainable?” white paper.
It’s impossible to reduce digital impact by just focusing on one part of the puzzle. To be effective, any green IT strategy must take a holistic view of all of those parts, namely:
- Data centers (they’re not in ‘the cloud’, they’re hangars filled with servers, that take a lot of energy to run and to cool)
- Hardware (not just servers in data centers, but also the PCs, phones and other devices we use every day)
- Software (data centers, hardware, websites and apps all require code to run; how that code is written can also have an impact, as well as when, how and where workloads are run).
When all of these factors are taken into account, the results can be incredible. From the telecom company which made 30% energy savings by optimizing its codebase to EDF Group’s Dalkia, which eco-designed its website and reduced its server needs from seven to two (this and more examples in our white paper), emissions and budget savings are not that difficult to unlock.
The first step of any journey…
…is always the hardest. And it shows, apparently…
Green IT authority Anne Currie (founding member of the Green Software Foundation, as well as director of Strategically Green and co-author of “Building Green Software”) has devised a “Green IT Maturity Matrix”. On a scale of one to five, she considers that most of us are currently only at level one, and that only Google is around level four. In other words, we’re only at the very start of a very long journey.
Carsten Windler, Principal Engineer and green IT thought leader at Plan A, one of Europe’s leading sustainability accounting companies, agreed: “The awareness (of green IT amongst developers) is just not there. You don’t see any smoke coming out of your computer! As a developer, your work seems very clean. When you say ‘4% of emissions (are from digital)’, they don’t always react. But when you say that represents 1.4 billion tons (of CO2 eq.) per year, then people realize they can do something. But we have to keep talking about it. I encourage every developer to speak up in their company; many would be surprised by how many like-minded colleagues they have.”
Of course, you can’t change what you can’t measure, so getting your facts straight is key to the first step of anyone’s Green IT journey. And that’s not always easy in itself, added Windler. “[Take cloud providers]. AWS’ reports are not very accurate. We don’t have a standard on what’s good to report. But we have to start somewhere, right? It’s still not very accurate, and often spend-based. So it’s important we request this of cloud and software providers. That way it bubbles up from sales to top management.”
Then there’s the question of how much data is the ‘right’ quantity to make informed decisions. As anyone who’s dabbled in emissions reporting will know, the more detailed a report is, the less likely it is of being publishable any time soon. “As Voltaire would have said, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good: any data is better than no data,” said Currie on this crucial point. In other words, settle for the data you need to make an informed decision.
“It doesn’t matter how inaccurate the numbers are,” asserted Simon Shillaker, Scaleway’s Engineering Manager for Serverless Computing. “A 50% reduction is still a 50% reduction. As long as you’re on a linear scale, [it’s obvious that] one server is half as bad as two.”
Shillaker, who has notably been working on a prototype carbon calculator for Scaleway cloud products, added “the real scale of the task of measurement, even for a cloud provider, is mind-boggling. Because even for the hardware impact, we’re still consumers. The manufacturers give us data, but if you go all the way down their supply chain, it’s impossible. But at the same time, it is surprisingly easy to reduce cloud infrastructure to just servers in a room. Because if you know the impact of one server, you can scale that up to any cloud resource or service.”
As with any new field, determining who should be accountable for, and on board with green IT, can invariably be the next challenge. Especially when there’s no precedent.
Firstly, green IT has to be aligned with a company or organization’s strategy. And reducing developers’ emissions isn’t many orgs’ priority right now. “Overwhelmingly, people care first about developer productivity”, said Currie. “So as well as green, it has to be productive, scalable, cost-effective and resilient. If you can’t align all those things, you won’t get many people to adopt it. And yes, the 4% doesn’t sound like much, but if everyone doesn’t fix their 4%, we’re screwed.”
Something else experts overwhelmingly agree on: green IT is not just IT teams’ responsibility. “People think that only engineers in the IT department can deal with green IT”, said Romane Clément, Co-Founder & Executive Director of responsible IT design studio CTRL-S, which has notably trained the Paris 2024 Olympics organizing team on green IT best practices. “It’s actually all about strategy, specifications, IT architecture, UX/UI, content, front-end/back end, hosting, digital communications… Digital is everywhere, so it’s everyone’s responsibility within an organization to have a better usage, but above all a better product or service design throughout the whole process.”
This inevitably means that “green IT has to be political”, Clément added. “If choices are easy, they’re not enough for the challenge we’re facing. We need debates about bigger questions, like ‘do we really need that product or service?’ That’s going to be key. We should also show what will happen if we don’t do anything, or if we only make small changes. This is why we organize workshops to imagine where we could end up in 2050. Just showing positive examples isn’t enough.”
Making sustainable impact
So if positive examples aren’t enough, what is? Legislation could be a good start. From CSRD, the European regulation which will oblige all companies over 250 employees to provide detailed impact reporting, to RGESN, France’s super-strict eco-design guidelines which could soon shape European legislation, many organizations will soon be obliged to take concrete measures to reduce their impact across the board.
“Talking about ethics at conferences really doesn’t land,” said Currie. “What does land is the EU, who are doing an amazing job at the moment with their Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism [or CBAM, essentially a tax on carbon-intensive goods entering Europe], which they’ve said will include [digital] services. So you’ll have to pay a hefty tax if you want any customers in the EU, which is a huge base of customers. [CBAM]is the GDPR of green. In other words, your business will not survive if you don’t get with the program. Green is completely aligned with good business and coding practices. If you want to survive, the future is green!”
Whilst positive examples may well not be enough on their own (without regulation), they remain powerful levers to teach key lessons about the potential of green IT. Currie shared two in particular:
1. VMWare moved out of one data center in Singapore after discovering that 66% of machines in that facility were running, but not serving any purpose. So they reduced their emissions and costs by two thirds, simply by knowing their own activity better.
THE LESSON: “the first thing you should do is a “zombie service scan” (as Holly Cummings of Red Hat puts it) - and turn off the machines that aren’t doing anything. That first step is good for your business, and for the planet,” says Currie.
2. Skyscanner shifted most of their infrastructure to spot instances - instances with no SLAs, to which you say ‘here’s a job, run it whenever you like, and tell me when it’s done’ - which allow the cloud provider to optimize machine utilization, as they seek out quiet machines and then run workloads on them. This makes them so energy efficient that they can cut hosting costs by about 90%, and emissions similarly.
THE LESSON: Use spot instances! “They really exemplify the kind of instances we’ll need to move towards,” says Currie. “They’re also used for demand- or time-shifting (moving to regions or periods where the electricity has the lowest carbon intensity) to allow people to run 24/7 on carbon-free energy (CFE). Just bear in mind that as they have no SLAs, they are hard to architect on top of.”
There's a lot to be said about green IT! Countless resources exist online - the Green Software Foundation is an excellent place to start. And count on us to keep this essential conversation going for as long as possible. More content and events coming soon!
Discover many more examples like this, as well as countless other insights, in the Scaleway white paper "How can engineers make IT more sustainable?", which you can download in full for free here!