by Gareth Scrivens, Technology Principal at frog UK
Digital technology has been key to our survival during the global pandemic. Our lives have become ever more reliant on the internet to work, order food and essentials, to keep in touch with each other and to stay entertained.
At the same time, we’re starting to see the magnitude of how much our digital services contribute to climate change. It’s been estimated that the internet contributes over 830 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year (Climate Care)—that’s a similar level to the aviation industry.
As consumers of social media, websites, apps or streaming services, we don’t have much power to solve this problem. But the organizations and the software engineers building these digital products and services do.
Over recent years momentum has been building in the green tech space. Not only in the volume of relevant and persuasive content (such as these Principles of Green Software Engineering) but in the number of organizations that are starting to take this seriously when thinking about how they build, deploy and run their digital services.
Our clients are increasingly calling on our expertise to help them approach this challenge. We’ve recently spent time with leading UK telco and financial organizations, helping them to start on improving the carbon footprint of their digital estates.
So what have we learnt? And what steps can you take to put sustainable tech choices on your organization’s agenda?
Convincing your organization to promote green tech doesn’t have to be a big sales pitch. There are a few easy steps you can make internally as architects and engineers.
When you’re creating new products and applications, good software engineering techniques and architectural patterns often mean good ‘green tech’ habits too. For example, we’ve found that selecting the right host for your systems can have a significant impact on the carbon used.
Selecting the right host for your systems can have a significant impact on the carbon used
The major players in cloud computing have different maturities of ‘green’ and methods for offsetting the energy that they consume. I’d recommend spending time selecting the right set of cloud tools for the job, but make sure that you consider which of them is greener—if the toolset is available to you from multiple providers then include ‘green’ in the criteria for making the final choice.
If a cloud provider is not an option for the solution you’re building, you can still build sustainability metrics into the on-premise hosting you’re working with. One of our UK clients is doing precisely this as we assist them in migrating software into a new physical Data Centre. We’re making sure that the ‘sustainability factor’ of the energy being used in the DC is measured day-to-day and reported on to validate that improvements are being made weekly.
One crucial reason why your organization might be avoiding putting green tech at the top of its agenda is that it believes that it will come at the cost of productivity.
Today, building web solutions with various out-of-the-box integrations affords us high speed and power. But it comes at a cost. Beyond the hosting of the software you’re creating, consider the number of different integrations you’re making with various third party services to build your solution.
The number of different integrations you’re making with various third party services come at a cost
The more you wire together features from third parties, the more you’re increasing the energy load on your sites. Pulling data from authentication services, pushing data to analytics engines and wiring in plugins for chatbots all need your browser to run and push data across networks. It all starts to add up.
Now I’m not saying don’t use third parties. The productivity gains from this approach are huge. But every so often my team like to take a step back and ask ourselves: is this website performing as well as it could be? Is calling that API absolutely necessary now? Framing this as web engineering best practice will avoid positioning sustainable choices as a risk to productivity.
Many organizations stall in their green tech progress by waiting for the perfect opportunity to arise. But none of the concepts I’ve suggested need to be implemented on pure Greenfield projects—pun intended. In fact, trying out these techniques on existing systems, and showing immediate improvements is likely easier.
The next time you refactor some code, refactor with some Green UI principals in mind; optimize API calls, look at the weight of the web page you’re building, and so on. Don’t wait to create the perfect ‘green’ app. Start with the one that’s in front of you now.
Finally, keep yourself honest throughout your development lifecycle by using sites such as Website Carbon or Ecograder to regularly check your green-scores during the build cycle. This will keep your engineering teams aware of the impact their code is having. They’re also a great resource to prove to the wider organization how you’re doing—and what still needs to be done.
We’re still actively learning and defining how a greener internet needs to be created, one site at a time. That means helping our clients and other designers and developers. As we build and use the internet we should all be thinking about how we can improve its impact on the planet: and it’s not too late to start.
If you’re already on this journey and want to join the conversation, do get in touch—we’d love to hear how you think we can make green-thinking a natural part of web engineering.