Can the internet be more climate-friendly and can websites be more energy efficient?

Blog  — Wed 16 Nov 2022

With energy consumption rightly under a magnifying glass and people taking a look at where things can be more economical, it might also be wise to take another look at IT. It has become essential and will not go away. The benefits are enormous, everyone can see that. Yet it is also okay to take a critical look at this field when it comes to energy consumption.

I think the essence can be summarized as follows: "efficient is often automatically economical". But is the Internet really efficient? Is all that hardware and software at its very best? Or is there room for improvement? In my view, there is quite a bit of room for improvement. Let's randomly pick out some.

Cleaning up old email

Recently in the news there was a call for everyone to clean out their email inbox. If everyone throws away their old emails, fewer hard drives are needed. And fewer hard drives in turn means less power consumption. A noble idea. It works that way, too. But it still felt like a drop in the bucket.

Often overlooked data centers

The Internet is a collection of devices connected to each other. From a phone or laptop in the home, to so-called servers in data centers and all the cables in between. Data centers are often located in industrial parks. Sort of warehouses, often with multiple floors. On each of those floors are rows of racks of cabinets. And in each of those racks are dozens of computers.

We call these computers servers. They are almost unrecognizable as computers because they have no keyboard, mouse or monitor. It's a metal box with a hard drive, processor and some other basic necessities. Like a network card with a cable connection to the outside world. These servers run 24/7 because different people require something from them at different times of the day. Like retrieving email.

Many of these data centers make it a sport to save energy. This can be done with green energy and even on their own roof with solar panels. But also by cooling with seawater instead of expensive air conditioning. Because 30 to 55% of the energy is used for cooling. Therefore, in some cities that residual heat is even used for district heating.

So the use of energy, as well as being aware and economical with it, is well in the picture at data centers. That's important.

Software also consumes energy

Where energy is much less in the picture, or say not at all, is in the software world. After all, isn't it the hardware that consumes energy? That has always puzzled me. Software and hardware are two hands on one figurative belly. Every instruction from software becomes a physical action for hardware. Carried out by electrons.

If we take a very brief step back in time, we can say that the purpose of software was to serve the end user. It had to be pleasant and work well. However, the writers of that software had to be fearless. It was heavy stuff, often with lots of math and little to no tools.

If we fast-forward again to the present, things have become very different. Creating software has been made much easier. There is now even software to create software with. Yes really. We often call them frameworks in this field. The purpose of a framework is to make it easier and less time-consuming for a software developer. It does not benefit the end user.

Ease and development costs

Frameworks can be idealistically out to make software development more accessible to everyone. But frameworks are also sometimes just commercially driven; simply to make software development easier and thus cheaper.

A framework is actually an interpreter. It takes "simple computer code" and translates it into "difficult computer code". So the programmer writes the computer code in the language of the framework, and it interprets it and forwards it to the underlying computer system that uses a more difficult language.

Anno 2022, there are even frameworks that translate toward another framework, which in turn speaks to the underlying system. In other words, multiple translations. It often works nicely as a programmer, yet it also has drawbacks.

Frameworks are there for simplicity of development. That way more programmers can use them, not just specialists. Frameworks therefore offer many ways to cut corners with easy off-the-shelf solutions. Sometimes hundreds of them.

Lost efficiency

Therefore, most contemporary programmers tend to be handy with one framework. They also no longer need to know the more difficult underlying languages because of that framework. Consequently, they often no longer master those. Thus, the concept of that layer also escapes their attention.

But if the framework lacks a solution, for them the only solution is to add another framework. Only this, of course, makes the software grow again. In addition, the two frameworks often have overlapping solutions and probably neither is used much. Sometimes even very little.

This in turn results in the need for more storage space. But also, the computer has to load and process a lot of computer code each time. Those are all wasted electrons. Finally, there is also the potential for more problems. Because more code always means more bugs and more attack opportunities.

Unnecessary wastage

Due to the desire for cheaper software when purchased, there is less and less expertise and more and more frameworks are emerging. Accumulations of frameworks even. And because of this, there is an unnecessary amount of computer code in software. Code that unnecessarily consumes energy in various ways. But that's not the only thing.

In fact, it is estimated that around 60% of internet traffic is not people, but robots. Software robots. Not those tin figures with arms and legs. Anyway, some robots come to collect information, but most have malicious intentions. Robots of criminals, in other words. Any of those visits by robots waste computer power. Using a Web application firewall can keep out many of these robots. And that, in turn, saves energy. It sounds like something nonsensical, but on the scale it is happening worldwide on the Internet, it really makes a difference.

Websites are also increasingly offering a dark theme. Mostly because it's pleasing to the eyes, especially in the evening. But why are websites mostly white, anyway? The keyboard is a grandchild of the typewriter. Recognizable by "carriage return," also known as "enter". Carriage return is literally what happened on an old-fashioned typewriter after the bell sounded at the end of the line.

Is that why websites are white? Because paper was white? If contrast is the issue then it can easily be reversed. With paper and books, of course, it was different. Anyway, screens use the most energy to display the color white. The pixel light should be on at its brightest. For the color black, on the contrary, it may be off. If more software adopted a dark theme, it would make a huge difference in energy consumption worldwide.

Consciously doing your best

At Exclusive-IT, we make a sport of efficiency; we've been doing it for over 15 years. Even when looking for the right balance between investment and solution. Examples include our conscious decision to use one of the most green data centers in the Netherlands. But also how we directly use deeper languages, and how we are weighing every letter in our code from multiple perspectives.

IT also has a place in a world that is climate and energy conscious. It will have to. The small details make the difference in this on a large scale. Let us also remain aware of this in IT.