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How to reduce your digital carbon footprint

digital carbon footprint

If the cloud were a country it would be the sixth biggest consumer of electricity on the planet, according to Greenpeace. Powered by data centres, and with a single plant capable of consuming the same amount of electricity as 50,000 homes, the digital industry is responsible for up to four per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Cloud computing creates a significant environmental impact but also provides major long-term benefits, including greater scalability, improved data storage and quicker application deployment, to name a few. With the world now racing down the path toward ubiquitous cloud computing how can an organisation reduce the environmental impact of its’ digital carbon footprint?

Knowledge-sharing and collaboration is one of the best approaches to finding greener cloud solutions and in the world of DevOps this means open-source applications, says Davide Bianchi, senior technical lead at Mia Platform. “Collaborating on open-source projects is a way to bring together the best ideas from anywhere in the world. It also represents an effective means to bridge internal knowledge gaps to develop greener cloud strategies from readily available external software resources.”

Cloud services like GitHub host open-source projects where developers can share, edit and fine-tune applications for the purpose of building more sustainable software. Open-source is the means to drive sustainable transformation by providing critical transparency, traceable decision-making, and to encourage more collaboration on green innovation.

“By engaging with an online community, organisations can utilise publicly available projects to move in the direction of decarbonisation,” Bianchi continues. “Reducing digital carbon footprint has become a priority for many app developers with the ‘climate change’ hashtag accounting for no less than 534 public repositories on GitHub, all of which contain open-source software codes contributing to efforts to fight climate change.”

Efficient use of applications

It is an inescapable reality that cloud computing relies on a huge amount of electricity, which is typically powered by fossil fuels. However, steps can be taken to mitigate the effect of carbon emissions through the efficient use of applications. By utilising applications that measure carbon emission rates, you can stay in control of your digital carbon footprint.

“Examples of applications that have been created for the purpose of managing carbonisation include kube-green,” Bianchi says. “Capable of reducing CO2 emissions of IT infrastructures by 30 per cent, kube-green mitigates the problem of unused IT resources consuming electricity outside of business hours by giving developers the ability to customise when deployment resources go to sleep and wake up. This negates the cost of leaving clusters running outside of working hours. In simple terms, it is the equivalent of turning off the lights when you leave a room.”

There are dozens of other applications such as Green Metric Tool, Greenly and Cloud Carbon Footprint that provide tools to measure and reduce the C02 consumption of an organisation’s software architecture.

Some tech companies go one step further such as Utego, provider of an all-in-one financial application that grants users full visibility of their different bank accounts from a single interface. Utego is a participant in the global One pre cent for the Planet movement, an initiative where respective members promise to return one per cent of their company turnover to environmental causes.

Containerisation of applications

How your applications are packaged can have a huge impact on their carbon efficiency. One strategy that IT departments can use to reduce their carbon thumbprint in the cloud is the containerisation of applications. 

“The basis of containerisation is packaging software code with just the libraries and dependencies as single lightweight executables,” Bianchi explains. “Each container houses different software applications and runs isolated processes.

“From an efficiency perspective, because containers are smaller they can start up in a fraction of the time virtual machines or servers take. Furthermore, because containers only include what an application needs to run, they are lightweight, meaning that less resources are being consumed. Overall, more containers can run on the same compute capacity as a single virtual machine, eliminating overheads and driving higher server efficiency.”

Microservices architecture

Containerisation helps package software, but you can go one step further with the design of digital platforms, specifically by adopting a microservices architecture. Microservices consist of a suite of small, autonomous services under the banner of a single application. You can think of a microservice as a single LEGO brick that is connected with other bricks to make a more complex structure. 

With a microservices architecture, business applications are segmented into independent modular services that can be programmed in any software language, leading to faster deployment and efficient cloud operations. “Any of these microservices can be decoupled and managed independently, which makes it easier to automatically scale as needed,” Bianchi says. “This means that if a specific microservice is used a lot, it is possible to replicate only the specific microservice. Clever management of software resources with this type of architecture will ensure that a platform can perform with far greater energy efficiency than has been found with old fashioned monoliths where this decoupling approach was not possible.”

Work with green partners and suppliers

The digital ecosystem of a business is not some abstract concept that lives on a screen. Virtual services require a physical shelter to function. Cloud providers are the landlords and data centres are the block of flats that house the virtual resources of organisations. Because there is now a wide selection of cloud providers in the market, if businesses are serious about decarbonisation, they need to align themselves with green suppliers.

“Data centre sustainability has been a key initiative of cloud platforms like AWS and Google Cloud and should be considered when selecting your cloud vendor, for example, AWS has a Customer Carbon Footprint Tool that uses simple visualisations to forecast emissions based on usage, whilst Google Cloud provides a Cloud Region Picker that enables users to select data centre regions with a higher average hourly carbon free energy percentage,” Bianchi says. “These innovative features in the cloud demonstrate the importance of aligning with responsible third parties to reduce digital carbon footprint.

“By choosing suppliers that share the same green ambitions, and without compromising on operational efficiency, organisations can achieve their business goals whilst also paving the way for a greener future.”

CTS The industrialisation of IT
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