With climate change and resource shortages increasingly dangerous problems for our planet and society, it's important that we continue to increase efforts to live and work more sustainably. One of the key opportunities we have comes in the form of Information Communication Technologies (ICT) which are at the forefront of our technological innovation. The tech sector can play an important role in driving sustainability by enabling lower energy and resource use.
It might sound a little hypocritical given that our increased reliance on technology has contributed to the global growth in energy production and consumption. Modern technology is often associated with adverse effects on the environment, especially when you consider some of the massive processing required for certain cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
However, technology can also play a massive role in cutting our greenhouse gas emissions and driving efficiency. Used wisely, this will help to create a more sustainable future with better environmental outcomes.
Using Automation To Improve Efficiency
In some cases, like with the development of electric cars, it’s easy to see how technology helps improve sustainability. There are plenty of opportunities in other sectors to innovate to produce more sustainable outcomes, though they might be harder to discern. In particular, many more industries could adopt automation to do more with less effort.
These days almost any repeatable task can be automated. McKinsey estimates that existing technology can automate half of all paid work. Studies have showcased that automation can drive efficiency in our processes, optimize energy-intensive work, and allow for more sustainable innovation. However, there are also risks, which must be navigated. The International Institute for Sustainable Development cautions that automation in areas including transport and the Internet of Things (IoT) could increase resource consumption.
Automation – applied correctly – can massively improve efficiency. Organizations at all levels must pursue automation wisely, with a focus on using efficiency gains to reduce resource consumption and carbon emissions, and not to increase them. For example, domestic and commercial energy automation, based on the Internet of Things (IoT), smart grid, and smart meter technology can match demand to supply to introduce energy agility and cost-efficiency. Such a system draws electricity from the grid at low cost at times when renewable energy sources are providing much of the capacity, stores it in batteries (or other energy storage mechanisms, such as thermal or potential energy storage), and releases it later when renewables are providing less capacity to the grid and energy prices are higher.
Automation can also contribute indirectly to sustainability and environmental impact. While sustainability programs often focus on direct environmental impact, sustainability is about far more than energy consumption and carbon emissions. Efficient automation drastically improves the productivity and therefore the long-term viability of many businesses. This produces a lot of positive side-effects: less waste, rising prosperity, and more spare resources to direct towards sustainable development.
Talk of automation often sounds like it will have a negative impact on jobs, with fears that robots or AI services will replace human operators in vast numbers. That might be true for some industries that cannot adapt or where businesses focus on using automation solely to reduce expenses no matter the costs or consequences. But it is also likely to create opportunities, as rising productivity and innovation frees up resources to invest elsewhere, and demand arises for new products and services – and new, more sustainable supply chains and logistics.
Using The Cloud To Share Resources
Cloud computing is one of the key trends that can help to drive sustainability in the tech industry. At first glance, it might seem that having massive data centers all around the world that rely on a lot of power cannot possibly be a good thing. However, cloud computing is actually driving several innovations with a positive impact on sustainability.
1. Shared Computing Resources
When a business hosts and manages its own data center, its computing resources are under-utilized most of the time, leaving spare capacity to handle peak demand. That’s a lot of energy, real estate, and physical equipment going to waste. Now multiply this waste by every business that needs a data center.
By contrast, cloud computing allows many businesses to share resources in a centralized location. Cloud providers typically allow several clients to run their applications at the same time on the same units of physical hardware. This is called “co-location”.
Every business that takes advantage of this model does not need to purchase, install, maintain, and eventually replace its own hardware. Additionally, the cloud provider can manage capacity to meet the demands of all their clients, with fewer resources wasted overall.
These cloud data centers are also often powered by renewable energy sources, with significantly less investment than would be required if each business tried to do the same with its own data centers.
2. Efficient Applications and Computing
With the move to containerization and smaller virtual machines (VMs) running on cloud servers, businesses have been pushed to create more efficient applications. Efficient applications use less processing time and data storage, meaning lower cloud costs – and lower energy consumption as a side-effect.
Furthermore, the efficiency of any processor hardware typically varies according to how much of its capacity is in use. Many CPU cores perform inefficiently at close to idle or near peak capacity and have a “sweet spot” for maximum efficiency somewhere in the middle. Modern server CPUs and operating systems balance workloads across multiple cores to achieve peak power efficiency and performance.
For example, Windows Server uses Hardware Controlled P-states (HWP) to optimize CPU utilization and efficiency. According to Microsoft:
CPU has better knowledge of the hardware power efficiency of each P-state. It can make a better choice of processor frequency to achieve the best power efficiency.
Unlike individual servers or individual on-premises data centers, cloud providers can balance and tune CPU workloads at scale. By managing processing capacity across all their server hardware, cloud providers can keep all their processors running in their efficiency “sweet spot” and achieve better collective efficiency.
The drive towards more efficient processing has also caused cloud providers to adopt ARM-based server hardware, which typically handles low-intensity workloads and modern software architectures more efficiently than Intel-based hardware. This in turn has caused some developers to re-architect their applications for the ARM instruction set, to benefit from lower cloud costs. According to research by InfoQ:
In this article, we compared commonly used algorithms and web application tasks on different compute architectures. We also compared a legacy stack Docker and Node.js vs. the new stack of SSVM (WebAssembly) and observed performance improvement of up to 100x times at cold start and up to 5x at warm runtime. There still appear to be significant room for improvements, especially with software optimization for Arm-based CPUs.
Another benefit of cloud computing and containerization is the ability for systems to scale as needed. Thanks to software load balancers and application delivery controllers (ADCs) like Snapt’s Aria and Nova, systems can scale-out or scale-in rapidly as needed. This eliminates the need to over-provision resources to cope with peak demand, or even the inefficiencies associated with slow scaling where it might take an hour or more to add or remove capacity.
Thanks to more advanced telemetry, AI, and orchestration technology, these load balancers and ADCs can now proactively scale critical infrastructure without wasting time, money, and energy, while still enabling businesses to maintain security, performance, and uptime.
Using Remote Working To Reduce Transport Impact
The development of digital communication technology – from remote desktop connections and VPNs, to video conferencing and team collaboration – and the restrictions on work and travel during the Covid-19 pandemic have produced an incredible growth in remote working.
The UK Office for National Statistics calculated that “of the employed population, 35.9% did some work at home in 2020, an increase of 9.4 percentage points compared with 2019”. This rise in remote work reduces the need to commute, which in turn reduces energy consumption and emissions from transport.
A 2020 study in the United Kingdom by DecarboN8 and mobile service provider O2 found that “overall carbon emissions from commuting fell to roughly 30-38% of what they had been before lockdown”.
Commuter traffic increased by 20-25% at the beginning of March 2020, most likely in preparation for the looming lockdown. It then dropped sharply just before 23rd March as businesses prepared for lockdown. May 2020 recorded the highest levels of commuter carbon reduction, about 40 to 78%.
Load balancers and ADCs like Snapt’s Aria and Nova are instrumental in scaling and securing the underlying technology that enables remote work, including enterprise IT services like remote desktop connections (with the RDP/RDS services and the UDP traffic protocol) and team collaboration applications like Dropbox.
Technology is enabling changing working practices and could break one of the most costly habits of the last few centuries: gathering workers physically in a centralized location. In the long-term this could also reduce the need for office space in urban centers, freeing up space for residential housing. Fewer sprawling suburbs and more concentrated urban populations would reduce the need for short-distance travel by even more, where “last mile” transport connectivity is typically the most costly and inefficient.
Technology, when misused, can waste resources and energy, cost jobs, and negatively impact local communities and the world.
Everyone working in the tech industry ought to approach our ambitions with wisdom, pushing back against waste and the arrogant assumption that there will always be more of everything, and instead pushing the boundaries of innovation in efficiency. Enabling automation, remote work, and cloud computing are just some of the ways we can contribute.
With low consumption, a small footprint, and a commitment to sustainability, we can continue to make technology a force for positive change.