Between the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act in August 2022, green computing stands to become one of the more pressing topics for tech companies as the United States looks to potentially invest several billion dollars into zero-carbon technologies over the next five years. The country will be looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1 gigaton in 2030, and the US will be revitalizing its semiconductor industry to the tune of $280 billion — with a quarter of that potentially funding climate-change research and green tech.
What is Green Computing?
“It’s not one technology. There’s no silver bullet,” said Soudip Roy Chowdhury, founder and CEO of Eugenie.ai, an AI-powered platform supporting industrial companies in achieving sustainable operations. “Multiple initiatives together will help the world to achieve net zero, and some of these will be futuristic, and some of these have to be very immediate, so today the industry can start using it.”
Also known as greentech or green IT, green computing is the environmentally conscious design, manufacturing, use and disposal of computers and related technologies in a manner that reduces carbon emissions and energy consumption, thereby minimizing environmental impact.
“What green technology to me is finding out those pockets of opportunities that you are missing today, so that you don’t waste excess energy. You don’t waste excess resources, but optimize, thereby, you produce it at the maximum and reduce all the wastage,” Chowdhury said.
Tech experts break down the concept of green computing, explaining why and how tech companies should embrace this sustainable practice.
What Is Green Computing?
Green computing involves using computing resources in an environmentally friendly way, reducing the consumption of resources and energy powered by fossil fuels.
“It’s not just what we plug into the walls. It’s not just what temperature we keep the data center or how we cool the racks or if there’s enough diesel to backup the generators if the power goes out,” said George Burns, senior consultant of cloud operations at SPR, a technology modernization firm. “It’s so many other things, all the way down to the code that we feed in.”
“Green computing is not one thing. Green computing is a set of practices that impacts how we consume computing resources.”
Green computing requires the reduction of power consumption for compute, network and storage, said Sreejit Roy, green IT offering leader and senior partner at IBM.
“If we are able to reduce the power consumption of these three components that comprise the whole — from the data center to the software we write — is what we call green computing,” Roy said.
Chowdhury describes green computing as “sustainable-driven transformation.” Such transformation requires tech companies to optimize their processes to be more efficient, find ways to reduce their waste and consumption and recycle their technology products.
“The moment I consume less power, I’m consuming less energy. If I’m consuming less energy, I’m reducing the carbon footprint. It’s as simple as that,” Roy said.
Green computing involves tech companies making front end changes like committing to reducing their climate impacts and minimizing their carbon footprint, as well as back end work such as optimizing data centers.
“Green computing is not one thing. Green computing is a set of practices that impacts how we consume computing resources,” Burns said.
Green Computing Examples
Update Tech and Architecture
Much of green computing looks like updating technologies to be more efficient and consume less energy.
“I can change from the old servers to the new servers, or I can change the architecture of the servers, or I can change what goes into the server from what we’re calling as monolithic to serverless, which are different kinds of architectures, which will significantly reduce the carbon footprint,” Roy said. “If nothing else, companies can simply take their workloads and move it to cloud.”
Use Cloud Storage
Roy estimates that transitioning to cloud can help some tech companies improve their carbon footprint by as much as 60 to 80 percent. Yet, definitively measuring the environmental impact of cloud servers, especially private ones, is challenging.
“Especially as the cloud grows, we increase adoption across so many different metrics. Understanding what that true cost is is complicated,” Burns said.
Store Data Locally
For companies with employees across the globe, using networks that store data locally can save energy. For example, Roy, who is based in Bangalore, India, expects that when accessing data in the United States, it takes two or three hops across network devices to get the data.
“The moment I start designing my architecture, designing my IT systems in a way that I do not go to those multiple hops, I’m consuming less network, and hence again, consuming less power, and hence again, consuming less energy, and hence less CO2,” Roy said.
Create a Digital Twin to Identify Inefficiencies
Eugenie works with its clients to create a digital twin, which is a real-time virtual representation of a system used for simulation and decision making. The digital twin can help companies identify areas where they can reduce waste and improve production.
“We simulated a scenario like what if you change this parameter by X with different numbers,” Chowdhury said. “Think of it like you are seeing the future. Whatever you change any of these parameters … that helps them to really understand at real time what the right setup for set points [should be].”
Use Virtual Machines
The creation of multiple virtual machines on a single computer can reduce energy consumption — the more densely an infrastructure is virtualized, the less carbon emissions released. The IBM research team offers a proprietary tool that can provide such insight to companies.
“The moment I’m able to get at the virtual machine level, then I know by mapping it, which application is consuming more energy, and I can then focus on those applications, or I can focus on those unused VMs to reduce my power consumption,” Roy said. “That is an actionable insight. And unfortunately, not too many of the companies are able to provide that actionable insight.
Analyze Application Performance
Burns encourages companies to analyze their applications’ performance and not stick with a software just because the company has invested in or even built it. Maintaining outdated or inefficient applications is wasteful and a prime example of sunk cost fallacy.
“Once you start breaking the code down, you break down the compute. You break down the storage. That’s a big part of it. Application modernization will have a huge effect on resource consumption for computing,” Burns said. “It’s time to decouple them. If you are looking for what is the low hanging fruit that I can grab onto easiest to make a green investment and green return for my organization? It starts with application modernization.”
Try Edge Computing
Edge computing, an IT architecture that brings computing and data storage closer to the data source, is a potential green computing practice, which can contribute to a reduction in energy consumption.
“Locality of what we do becomes a big part of how we consume computing resources,” Burns said. “We consume the network differently. Those consumers are where a lot of our resource consumption occurs still, so we move things to the edge so that they consume less power.”
Why Is Green Computing Important?
Tech companies should anticipate increased compliance and reporting requirements around their emissions and energy consumption in the future, with the expectation to reduce pollution and reliance on fossil fuels, as countries focus on reducing their impact on global warming.
“The amount of opportunity we have to influence that energy footprint is enormous.”
A large portion of green computing efforts are focused on reducing the energy consumption and emissions of data centers, which are estimated to use about 1 percent of the world’s electricity demand, according to the International Energy Agency. Lots of energy and water is needed to run and cool data centers, so making data centers more efficient has the potential to have a large impact on the environment.
“The amount of opportunity we have to influence that energy footprint is enormous,” Roy said.
Not recycling electronics can contaminate plants, trees and food supplies when toxic components in e-waste like mercury, lead, cadmium and lithium enter into soil or water streams. “If you don’t recycle, these become landfill, which makes the whole land not as good as it’s supposed to be,” Chowdhury said.
From a profitability standpoint, clients and consumers are likely to increasingly favor companies that prioritize green computing practices.
“You won’t be able to pitch or do a deployment or modernization unless you’ve taken care of sustainability,” Roy said.
Watch out for greenwashing though, which occurs when an organization spends more time and money on advertising itself as environmentally friendly than actually conducting work to reduce its impact on climate change.
What Are the Benefits and Challenges of Green Computing?
Green computing stands to reduce technology’s impact on climate change and can aid in net-zero efforts. Companies that embrace green IT stand to have better reputational success and have an easier time complying with regulations around technology emissions in the future.
Much of the challenge around green computing is in measuring and reporting a company’s environmental impact, Chowdhury said. The industry needs a “consolidated data approach,” where not just one, but all companies within a sector, know where the industry benchmark is, said Chowdhury. It’s important so that companies can measure and work toward a goal in a sustainable way, he said.
“You need to understand your industry’s best practice as well as your own best practice and then compare and contrast, and we’ll move towards a better tomorrow,” he said.
Public cloud services offer clearer measurements of how much power is being consumed, but Roy estimates that very few companies operate entirely on a public cloud.
“The challenge is identifying, first of all, how much data, how much carbon is being pulled, what the carbon footprint of that nonpublic cloud portion is,” Roy said. “The measurement of that is not matured enough at all.”
Ultimately, green computing requires a cultural shift to become a part of tech companies’ business practices.
“That cultural change is what we think is extremely important going forward for all those organizations,” Roy said. “They have to put sustainability as what we’re calling NFR, or a nonfunctional requirement, into everything they do, from architecture, to design, to develop, to test and deploy. If they do not do that, going forward, they are going to be in big trouble going forward.”