Commentary

What Green Coding For Websites And Apps Is - And Why It Matters

Data centers consume 3% of the planet's electricity, much of it to cool data centers. Fortified founder and CEO Ben DeBow says one problem seldom addressed is how much the code behind websites and apps contribute to a company's carbon footprint.

Data & Programmatic Insider connected with DeBow to find what this CEO and author of End of Abundance in Tech: How IT Leaders Can Find Efficiencies To Drive Business Value, thinks.

D&PMD:  Who is Ben DeBow, and why are you interested in green coding? 

DeBow:  At the core of my interest in green coding is my profound connection with the outdoors.

Nature has always been more than just a backdrop for leisure to me — it's a sanctuary of inspiration, creativity, and innovation. Each moment spent among the elements translates into fresh insights and ideas that fuel my professional pursuits.

I've come to recognize the inextricable link between the environment and the realm of technology. Our digital advancements, although transformative, come at an environmental cost that can no longer be ignored. Green coding offers a bridge between my dual passions: the unwavering reverence for nature and the thrill of technological innovation.

I believe that by championing sustainable coding practices, we can not only curtail the adverse environmental impacts of our digital world but also inspire a new wave of developers to view their craft through a greener lens.

D&PMD:  What is green coding?

DeBow:  Green coding is a rapidly emerging paradigm that seeks to align the objectives of software development with the broader goal of environmental sustainability.

At its core, green coding is about reshaping how developers perceive, design, and implement software systems.

Historically, the evolution of technology and hardware has been so rapid that many developers operated under the assumption of limitless and ever-growing computational power.

This led to code being written with a certain degree of redundancy, often without prioritizing efficiency. However, as we become more cognizant of the environmental repercussions of our technological growth, there is an urgent need to reconsider these practices.

Every line of code executed, every server powered, and every data request processed has a tangible carbon footprint.

Green coding urges developers to consider these factors. For instance, an inefficiently designed algorithm can demand excessive CPU cycles, leading to more power consumption, which in turn results in higher CO2 emissions if the energy isn't sourced sustainably.

The principles of green coding:

  • Efficient Algorithms: This means choosing algorithms that optimize resource usage.
  • Optimized Data Storage: Reducing the size of datasets, using efficient data formats, and avoiding unnecessary data storage can significantly decrease energy usage.
  • Sustainable Architectures: Adopting server-less computing, energy-efficient hardware, and other green infrastructure solutions.
  • Reducing Waste: By removing dead code, unnecessary logs, and obsolete databases, developers can ensure that no extra energy is consumed.
  • Energy-Efficient User Interfaces: Designing UI/UX in a way that reduces resource-intensive operations, such as frequent screen redraws.
  • Awareness and Measurement: Developers should be equipped with tools that provide insights into the energy consumption of their code.

Green coding is not just about writing code. It's about adopting a mindset, a responsibility, toward our planet.

It's about realizing that, as developers, we have the power to make a significant difference in the fight against climate change -- one line of code at a time.

D&PMD:  How much does it influence the carbon footprint of websites and apps? 

DeBow:  Merely being in a green data center doesn't equate to being environmentally efficient.

One of the critical solutions to this pervasive problem is to prioritize efficiency at the very onset of the development process. Efficiency should be an acceptance criterion for code before it's promoted to production.

By setting such standards, we not only ensure that the applications are built on lean and optimized foundations, but we also drive a culture of sustainable coding within development teams. Every unnecessary computation, every piece of redundant data stored, and every millisecond of server uptime has implications not just for operational costs, but for our environment.

The challenge here is twofold. Firstly, there is a lack of awareness. Many enterprises are yet to fully recognize the environmental ramifications of their digital infrastructures. Secondly, there's an inertia in overhauling existing systems, mainly due to the perceived costs and operational disruptions involved.

I believe that with a concerted effort from the tech community, businesses, and consumers, we can shift toward more sustainable digital practices.

Developers and architects can prioritize efficiency in design, businesses can invest in state-of-the-art infrastructure that truly embodies the ethos of "green," and consumers can hold companies accountable for their digital carbon footprints. 

D&PMD:  How did you realize this hypothesis? 

DeBow:  My realization about the significant carbon footprint of digital systems -- especially over the long lifecycle of applications -- arose as I was writing my book, End of Abundance in Tech, I delved into the total cost of ownership (TCO) of code and data.

It wasn't just about the financial aspect, but a broader, more holistic perspective that considered the environmental and resource implications.

The lifecycle of an application also opened my eyes when we consider that a typical application might remain online and functional for 10 to 20 years, the accumulative costs -- both financial and environmental -- become staggering. It's like a dripping faucet -- a drop here and there might seem inconsequential, but over time, you end up with a full bucket.

Similarly, small inefficiencies in code or data handling can compound over an application's lifespan to result in a significant carbon footprint.

When I started looking into database systems, known for their complexities, I quickly noticed many issues. These systems, which are essential for most applications, often have problems like redundancy, ineffective queries, and poor architectures. These issues don't just affect performance and increase costs -- they also lead to higher energy use.

This realization changed my view of the tech industry. While technology offers many benefits, it also comes with a duty to be environmentally responsible. Otherwise, our digital progress might be remembered for its environmental impact.

D&PMD:  How did you prove it?

DeBow:  There are two crucial areas: compute (CPU processes) and data storage or the volume of data.

Every action an application performs through a CPU not only consumes energy but also generates heat. This operation needs significant energy, both for the computation itself and for cooling systems to dissipate the heat produced.

While the individual footprint of data storage on physical media seems negligible, the amount of data every organization has and the rapid growth rate of data being processed daily cannot be ignored.

As this data expands, so does the amount of energy required for the CPU to process and subsequently cool it as the application asks questions against the data.

Compounding the issue, if the underlying code processing the data is not optimized, these inefficiencies magnify with increased data volumes. Analogous to a car engine, a minor inefficiency in fuel burn might be trivial on a short drive, but it becomes notably wasteful on a lengthy journey.

In the digital realm, as data grows, so do the inefficiencies -- resulting in escalated energy demands, increased hardware requirements and a surge in resources, such as water, for cooling.

While the digital age offers numerous benefits, it is imperative to understand its environmental implications, and our research endeavored to spotlight these often-overlooked costs to promote awareness and necessary changes in the tech sector.

D&PMD:  Can green coding save companies money?

DeBow:  Absolutely. Green coding can lead to substantial financial savings for companies. To give a concrete example, within the realm of databases, it's often found that less than 1% of the code can consume upwards of 50% of the resources.

What this implies is that by strategically focusing on optimizing a relatively small fraction of their processes or data, companies can achieve dual benefits: a marked reduction in their carbon footprint and significant cost savings.

One of the most glaring areas of potential savings lies in licensing costs for database platforms like Oracle and SQL Server. Given that licensing fees for these platforms can run into millions, any optimization that reduces the demand on these systems can translate into notable financial relief.

In essence, green coding isn't just an environmental imperative -- it's also a sound financial strategy.

D&PMD:  Should green coding become something brands use in messaging to consumers? 

DeBow:  Absolutely. Drawing parallels with the construction industry, I envision a certification similar to LEED but tailored for software applications. Such a certification would serve as a clear benchmark for consumers, highlighting a company's commitment to sustainability in the digital realm.

Going beyond mere certifications, it's crucial for businesses to rally around a global cause, committing to green coding initiatives wholeheartedly.

A model worth considering is the approach taken by brands like Patagonia. Their collaboration with companies to pledge 1% of revenue toward environmental causes demonstrates the power of collective action.

Adopting a similar pledge focused on technology and green coding can not only showcase a brand's commitment to the planet but also resonate strongly with an increasingly eco-conscious consumer base.

Integrating green coding into brand narratives and marketing strategies can be a transformative step, signaling a deeper responsibility towards creating a sustainable digital ecosystem.

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