This past summer, I was a research intern at RackN, working on a project studying how to reduce the climate impact of digital infrastructure from the DevOps software side. I read articles, examined case studies highlighting green IT efforts, and interviewed technology and sustainability professionals from Amazon Web Services, Edgevana, EmitZero, Lumen Technologies, and Schneider Electric.
Initial project expectations
Honestly, when I first started this project, I wasn’t optimistic. I had just finished my first year studying Environmental Engineering at Duke. I’ve been feeling climate anxiety since I was in elementary school. In kindergarten, I learned that it was apparently my generation’s job to save the world. That legacy has weighed heavy on me ever since. I’ve been feeling burnt out, and pessimistic, like no one with money or power cares enough about the environment to change their behavior in any climate-positive way.
But through this project, I realized that I was wrong.
Current industry green IT efforts
In the past few years, almost every major tech company (Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.) has made material promises to reduce their carbon emissions.
Beyond that, they use innovative strategies to make real changes, and the results are promising. These companies are changing their operations to reduce their impact on the climate. Not just to offset, to reduce! Further, they’re publishing their methods and giving tools to help other companies do the same thing. This was incredibly uplifting and empowering to learn.
Instead of writing a blog post about how to desperately convince IT companies to care about the climate and assess their climate impact, I find myself writing about how industry leaders already care and the cool strategies they’re using.
Six Ways to Start Green IT Efforts
If you’re reading this and your company isn’t already launching an impact-reducing initiative, here are six great ideas on how to get started! The question isn’t if you should implement them; it’s which one you should try first. If your company hasn’t yet considered reducing your climate impact, this is a sign to ask yourself what’s been stopping you.
1. Measure your current green IT efforts
First before you change any of your operations, you should measure the climate impact of everything you do. There are a lot of great tools to help you do this. The Green Software Foundation has already compiled a list of green software resources, complete with a section of tools to measure the impact of your computing.
2. Get Organized
A study by Mckinsey found that “companies can double the energy efficiency of their data centers through more disciplined management.” Disciplined management cuts costs and emissions. Through many conversations with IT executives and data center specialists, I’ve gotten the strong impression that some of the data center management is just plain lazy. People buy too many servers or give them workloads without thinking about efficiency and maximizing utilization.
Graphic: Green Software Foundation
(By the way, my research sponsor, RackN, helps companies with this issue, and you should definitely check out what they do here)
Before you try out a new strategy, clean up what you already have. For example, increase the utilization of some of your servers, and turn off the ones you don’t need. As the Green Software Foundation says, “The most efficient and green approach is to run your work on as few servers as possible with the highest rate of utilization.”
The graphic illustrates how a server at 0% utilization still uses half of the power of a server at 100% utilization. Shifting workloads to increase the utilization of some servers and turning off idle servers would save large amounts of power.
Additionally, you can prioritize green IT efforts by writing more energy-efficient code. There are tools that help you measure the energy consumed by your applications. For example, this list of awesome green software has the resources you need to start now.
3. Use servers longer
53.6 million tons of e-waste were generated in 2019 alone (Swinhoe). Seriously. 53.6 million tons.
During my interviews for this project, there was one idea that consistently kept coming up: it’s better to use what you already have rather than buy a new machine, even if the new machine is more energy efficient than the old one.
The tech industry has a reputation for retiring servers after just a few years when they have a much longer lifespan.
Part of the problem is that newer software doesn’t integrate well with older machines, but that’s a solvable problem. If we prioritize backward integration, we could use machines longer, which would reduce the climate impact of building more machines and reduce e-waste. If you just hold on to the servers you already have longer, you can help combat this problem.
4. Demand shifting
Google posted an article about how they’re using a strategy called demand shifting. This shifts flexible workloads to times when the electricity from the grid comes from greener energy sources. In the article, Google talks about the tools it used to make this approach possible so that other companies can follow its lead.
This is one of the innovative solutions I was most excited to learn about in this project.
5. Put pressure on your suppliers
Your prioritization has power. When you prioritize limiting the environmental impact of your source material, you can put pressure behind that priority through means of procurement requirements for your suppliers. You can cause change with your green IT efforts.
When many companies do this, it forces the supply chain to adapt. You can be a motivating factor for other organizations to reduce their climate impact when you use the power you have as a consumer.
6. Align efficiency and management improvements
In addition to the positive environmental impacts, all of these suggestions also improve your IT management, control, and spending. It’s powerful to align Environmental Social Governance (ESG) goals AND operational improvements because it keeps teams from having to make trade-offs between corporate and environmental goals.
According to the CEO of RackN, Rob Hirschfeld, “when our customers have improved their operational control of infrastructure, they also improve their ability to manage and maintain their existing infrastructure, control cost, tune utilization and reduce environmental impact. There’s no downside to increased automation and observability, and it’s always the first step to system improvements.”
Even looking at all of these solutions, I still sometimes find myself pessimistic. Will any of these even make a big enough difference?
Then I saw this quote from the Green Software Foundation: “Sustainability isn’t one optimization; it’s thousands.” It helped me to realize that the reason these changes are worth doing is because they’re small.
Change always comes from a lot of small things coming together. This is how the forest grows back after a fire; this is how the great barrier reef is slowly returning. Nature has shown us time and time again that recovery is possible, and it’s a lot of small things working for a long time. If we want to heal the environment, we must learn from it.
I can’t make companies care about ESG initiatives, but I can assure you that it’s worth it to care. Caring can make a difference. And even if the difference feels small, you’re on the right track.