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The team of the Neos Conference invited me to deliver an inspiring & activating session on Digital Sustainability. You can find the recording below.
When we started SDIA 3 years ago, the word 'sustainability' was not in vogue and I had to start every presentation with a definition. And today? Again, I'll start this presentation with a definition because it's used so often that it has lost clarity and meaning.
It's actually not just about sustainabilityitself, but about the sustainable development of our society and economy - so a development that balances the needs of the environment, society, the economy and leaves the world for the next generation as we found it .
The English original "Sustainable Development" was defined in 1987 by the Brundlandt Commission.
This also includes the Sustainable Development Goals, which I am sure you’ve spotted already.
What does this mean for the SDIA Community and the larger IT community?
It means that we also have to deal with how we can develop our sector sustainably and chart a path which enables us to "digitalize more" without negative environmental and social effects.
It’s difficult to really get a feel for the size of today’s negative impact from IT, so what do we do?
First measure. But how do you measure the environmental impact of software applications, of a shared service? Of a website? Of a google search?
It is possible. And to explain how, you need to follow me on a bit of journey.
When I started software development 15 years ago, the IT world looked like this:
An application sitting on a server which is used by someone
The server is in a data center which I know
and the network is connecting the user/application and the data center
Then every 2-3 years a new abstraction layer was introduced
And the application is moving further and further away from the actual infrastructure
and current hot shit: serverless
Ironic that serverless but still runs on a server
And then came the complete abstraction of IT infrastructure: cloud infrastructure
Now I don't even know which data center I'm actually in. And the illusion is complete: I can use infinite resources for my software.
And now we're trying to measure the the environmental impact of the physical infrastructure of the application?
That’s very complex - it’s much more feasible if we simplify our model, our approach.
So what does a simplified model look like?
I know that every IT person is about to throw a beer bottle at me, but come with me for a moment.
Digital infrastructure produces resources.
The next layer knows or makes these resources available to one or more applications.
The application consumes these resources to provide a product or service to users.
The model can be applied to almost anything - digital infrastructure can be a smartphone or laptop, the resource allocation then makes the operating system for the application(s) currently running in parallel. But it can also be a data center with 10 servers that are virtualized.
The key in this model is the idea of the digital resource
Because software does not exist in physical space, it cannot have any environmental impact. However, the creation of the resources that the software consumes may very well have an environmental impact.
In the end, a computer does nothing other than convert raw materials and electricity into computing power, into digital resources. So whatever materials and electricity are being used, that’s where the environmental impact stems from.
So if I can assign an environmental impact to each resource and know how many resources an application consumes
Then it suddenly becomes much easier to measure and determine how much environmental impact is hidden in a software application.
And with the idea of digital resources, transparency can be created across the entire value chain: how well the produced resources are utilized, amount of waste, and the environmental impact of each resource
Ultimately we can use it to measure the environmental impact of all digital products, all applications
And the sum of all these services and products provides an idea for the overall impact of the digital economy.
OK, we can measure it, but what does the path to sustainable development of the digital sector look like now?
Let's clarify the responsibilities first. Who is actually responsible for the environmental impact?
The user is responsible for sensible use. You shouldn't drive your car in circles, even if it's running on green electricity.
The manufacturers of software and digital products are responsible for making the consumption of resources and the associated environmental impact transparent to the user and minimizing them. Digital resources should also be procured from sources with minimal or no environmental impact.
When allocating resources, waste of resources should be avoided or idle time reduced.
And digital infrastructure must generate sustainable resources and make the environmental impact of each resource transparent.
If the responsibilities are clear, we can create the tools and the transparency that enable the sustainable development of digital economy and digitization
and that's what we're working on with our SDIA community.
for example on a label for digital products and services for users
Or an label for digital resources
Or a standard for converting digital resources into environmental impact
And a lot more.
With these tools we can pave a way towards sustainable development. There is still work to be done, such as making social impact measurable, but it is a start.
And now we can ask ourselves: What role does Europe, Germany, or all of you want to play in shaping a sustainable digital economy?
If we in Europe and in Germany want to have a positive influence on the internet, digitization, the digital economy, then not with the idea of sovereignty, isolation, or with fear.
But rather by leading the way on the sustainable development of the digital sector and embedding our values. Showing that things can be different. And that we can compete globally with transparency and sustainability.
If you want to do something tomorrow, here are some ideas
The most important: Link environmental impact and costs to the actual usage of internal and external users
When I press the gas pedal hard - I can see it right away in the battery charge state and electricity consumption of a Mercedes. Same when I enable and disable car features such as climate control.
Why it’s important? Because it enables me to change my behavior.
Now with software it’s more difficult, when I turn functionality off or change my usage - I see no effect. When performing a complex operation, I can see that I have to wait, but I don’t see the impact its creating, in energy use and environmental costs. So how are users going to change their behavior if there is no visibility?
Introduce resource constraints
All the embedded systems developers & architects will be confused now - but why there is always a resource constraint? It’s more common, and when you look at the example of the electrical car again, there is a clear battery constraint.
But if you look outside those closed systems, at enterprise applications, at backends, there is no constraints on the resource use. Even though they would likely better software, that needs less servers, uses less energy and is likely easier to maintain as well.
Classify your applications & workloads
This is a big one, and especially enables your operations and IT infrastructure teams to optimize much more than is possible now.
Consider my mom’s wordpress blog - does it really need to run on Tier 3 infrastructure, backed up by diesel gen-sets? Probably not!
When a computer is bought and plugged into power, it generates computation power every second. If it’s turned off, the embodied resources, the rare earths and metals are wasted. Every computational device should be treated like a power plant - maximize utilization.
Technically Functions/FaaS can serve as great fillers for infrastructure, but also good architecture, e.g. starting workers with a backlog of non-critical/non-realtime jobs that fill up idling servers & computers.
The average utilization of servers around the world is about 15%. That’s crazy, why are we still buying more servers if we don’t use 75% of them? It’s of course all for redudancy and peak capacity. And now you are putting high-performance computers into cars as well. Do something with all that computing power you are deploying. It’s using resources we can likely never recycle, or put back into the earth. Use it, maximize the lifetime and don’t waste it.
This we can make simple:
- Force transparency - every supplier of cloud infrastructure, data centers, server equipment, chips, cables, etc. needs to give you full Lifecycle Assessment data, the full environmental impact of the usage, service or product you’ve bought
- Force repairability - I can still order parts for an old Mercedes model, right? Why can’t I do that for servers, switches, computers? Why does the firmware become outdated? that should not be acceptable to a company that thrives on making products that last a lifetime.
- Be transparent about the footprint of software - asking suppliers of software applications and services to supply Life Cycle Assessment data also for purely digital products, all of it will need to be accounted for as Mercedes Scope 3 eventually.
And of course you can join our community to make a difference and support us: It’s free.
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