The development and operation of software takes place in data centers — and they can be anything but green. 

Politics and society increasingly demand companies become more sustainable. Resolutions such as the Paris Climate Agreement have set strict guidelines in this regard. For software manufacturers, this shouldn’t be a challenge: Thanks to digitalization and web- and download-based distribution, software is primarily a digital product; packaging waste and other production waste, is rare these days.

But unfortunately, that’s not quite true. After all, the development and operation of software takes place in data centers—and they can be anything but green.

False green – the CO2 footprint of software depends on hardware

The hardware in data centers has a heavy impact on the environmental balance sheet: the recycling of electronic waste is costly, and it also contains toxic chemicals. These are harmful to both the environment and human health. There’s also packaging waste and resource-intensive production, which requires a great deal of energy and raw materials.

Large amounts of power-intensive hardware combined in one place requires enormous power consumption, mainly due to the cooling systems needed. Renewable electricity cannot yet fully cover the energy requirements for large-scale computing facilities.

In addition to cooling data centers, the heating and maintenance costs for office facilities and company headquarters must be considered. Even as we move to home offices, these environmental concerns can’t be completely eliminated. Remote work environments require energy-intensive infrastructure and additional computing power. Remote workers now consume more energy in their own homes. While this doesn’t directly affect companies’ environmental footprints, it does play a role in the overall consideration of sustainable concepts. The idea this change in the world of work will ultimately enable a smaller environmental footprint shouldn’t be assumed.

Sascha Giese, Head Geek at SolarWinds

Using hardware correctly

To make software more sustainable, we should start with the data centers. There is hardware available that’s designed to consume less energy, generate less waste heat, require less cooling, and have longer runtimes. Lower energy consumption can then also easier be capped with green power.

However, ad-hoc modernization isn’t always practical. It can lead to a large amount of electrical waste and would therefore not be in the spirit of a long-term sustainability strategy. While decommissioned, old hardware doesn’t always have to go directly to the landfill. Refurbishing hardware is possible, but to modernize systems, it makes more sense to convert step-by-step and use existing resources as long and effectively as possible.

No fear of red figures

Red figures for utilization are a warning signal for many data center operators and should call for a rethink. Utilization at the upper-performance range also means all available resources are being used efficiently. Conversely, it also means at 50% utilization, half of the systems are being operated unnecessarily. Of course, it’s important to have computing power ready for peak loads. But this performance shouldn’t come at the expense of energy and wear and tear—or at the expense of the environment.

The best solution is to leave unused infrastructure idle until it’s really needed. This can also be fully automated. For example, if ten hosts are working at 30% utilization each, there are orchestration solutions built to consolidate the operations and group them on sufficient hosts for the operation. The unused hosts are then shut down and go dormant. A wake-on-LAN system then automatically activates additional hosts, increasing computing power as necessary.

Consolidation not only can help ensure greater sustainability on a case-by-case basis, but can increase it generally. Data centers or IT infrastructures often contain many individual applications, each serving only one purpose. It’s much more efficient to look for solutions built to consolidate several of these applications. A consolidated application typically requires less energy and processing power than multiple individual ones.

Legacy systems or unused and forgotten applications are also unnecessary power hogs. This can be because they run unnecessarily or because they haven’t yet been developed to be energy-efficient. There are modern monitoring solutions built to summarize all running processes and the associated computing power and workloads on a single platform. This makes it easy to see where action is needed and which applications are unnecessary, inefficient, or underutilized. One such monitoring solution is the SolarWinds® Hybrid Cloud Observability platform.

The information gained can then be used to adapt the company’s own software portfolio accordingly. This helps save computing power, hardware wear, cooling capacity, and energy in the data center—and money, too. 

Waste heat – a lot of unused hot air

Data centers can also be used in other ways. They can offer green added value to society. There are already plans to use the waste heat from large-scale data centers to heat households and water supplies in surrounding area.

Especially now, in times of impending gas shortages, the waste heat from data centers should be used more. According to a study by Bitkom, connecting data centers to public and private district heating networks could supply around 350,000 German homes annually. Companies would make a direct contribution to the basic supply and improve the energy balance of their rapidly growing industry. Where no district heating networks exist, the waste heat could be delivered directly to the surrounding buildings.

Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in practice. Up to now, waste heat has mostly been released unused into the environment. 25% of the data center operators surveyed in the Bitkom study say they do not use the waste heat and will not do so in the foreseeable future (slide 51). Nevertheless, 43% of respondents plan to use it in future modernization and new construction projects. So, it’s conceivable that sites for new data centers could be selected in the future based on proximity to district heating networks and housing developments.

Thinking greener

Finally, it’s also about the little things. For example, sustainably produced furniture can be used for office buildings. This is usually more expensive than other furniture and is therefore rarely used. However, such measures can pay off in a completely different way – recruiting.

The general mindset of the next generation is green. Young people are growing up with the principle of sustainability and acting upon it. Students are leaving universities with a higher basic understanding of how to live and work sustainably. Employers who don’t act sustainably can be less attractive and run the risk of falling behind in the search for young talent. It may sound banal, but for many entry-level employees, a sustainably produced couch in the lobby can tip the scales. And in times of a very high shortage of skilled workers in IT, this could be an unnecessary missed opportunity. Last but not least, employer rating portals use environmental/social awareness to create a metric for the company in question.

Building a sustainable business model can present IT companies with challenges just like any other modern company. But digital companies have the advantage that the areas where their eco-balance can be significantly improved are obvious. More and more solutions for far-reaching sustainable change, such as automation, are emerging as a result of digitalization. In this sense, digital developers themselves have it in their hands to achieve more sustainability in their industry.