How to develop sustainable software

In the midst of the current and increasing global climate crisis, environmental sustainability is more important than ever before. It may seem like software is harmless when it comes to considerations of carbon footprints and producing more waste. 

But in fact, most software relies on huge amounts of energy to function, which needs resources to power it. The development process itself can consume large amounts of energy, since the development stage often involves plenty of experimentation and many rounds of testing before the software is ready to release.

In this article, we will take a look at what software is used for, the current impact of software development on the environment, and then we will explore how to develop software that is environmentally sustainable.

What Is Software Used For?

Software is basically everywhere. Software can be defined in contrast to hardware, a category which includes all the physical elements needed in a computational task. Software, on the other hand, is a set of instructions that direct a computer to fulfill a specific action. 

Almost every computer program is a type of software, and so are most of the pervasive digital tools in today’s world. This includes smart phone apps, database systems, GPS navigational tools, text messaging platforms, remote work resources, Cloud file storage, and smart home gadgets, among many other types of software. As we continue to rely on the internet for our work, communication, socializing, entertainment, navigation, and commerce, the importance of software will continue to increase.

The Current Impact Of Software On The Environment

While technological innovations lead to increasingly sophisticated software at ever faster rates, there are still a number of problems that software developers fail to address. A few are listed below:

Limited Software Life Cycle

Although there is more new software being released all the time, old software is still used, presenting problems in terms of integration and seamless transitions. And even brand new software that exhibits the latest in high tech creativity does not necessarily offer a lengthy life span. It may not be planned obsolescence, but software still is not built to last. And that means more resources are used, and perhaps wasted, along the way. 

Reactive Problem Solving Approach

All too often, software developers focus on a limited, highly focused approach to problem solving, which fails to address the actual underlying issues that make the software unsustainable. Instead of proactively adjusting the software itself, many software developers will only attend to the upcoming release, or solving issues that have been reported by customers. 

This approach puts the developmental lens on the future, so developers may fall into the trap of creating new projects first and fixing intrinsic defects later. Temporary fixes are then built into the deeper layers of the software from version to version. This leads to software that is essentially not built to last, and will cause further issues down the line. 

Energy Consumption And Carbon Emissions

Most people are unaware that computer hardware has a negative impact on the environment. But it is an even less well known fact that software also leads to environmental issues. Software does not directly require energy, but since it instructs and guides the computer hardware to act, it contributes to the way the hardware itself consumes energy. Unsustainable software can therefore have a huge influence on how much energy an individual computer consumes. And that impact is then multiplied exponentially, as the same problematic software runs on thousands of individual devices. 

Huge Amounts Of Energy

New technologies rely upon innovation, investors, and profit margins to grow and expand, so environmental sustainability is not always at the forefront of developers’ minds. 

Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency is a great example. Bitcoin, the largest and most successful type of cryptocurrency to date, uses huge amounts of energy to function. Researchers have revealed that the amount of energy required for the Bitcoin network to run is approximately 115 Twh, which amounts to roughly double the amount of energy consumed by the whole country of Switzerland on a regular daily basis.

Red AI and AI Modeling

Research and development phases can also require massive quantities of energy to run tests and experiments. AI modeling and training processes can be huge energy consumers, particularly when high degrees of accuracy are required. In fact, the more energy is consumed, the more accuracy can be rendered in AI learning results. Developers interested only in finding highly accurate results, no matter the cost to the environment, can thus employ more and more power in order to boost the accuracy of the results. This approach makes the AI research increasingly unsustainable, in a phenomenon known as “red AI”. 

Natural Language Processing

Another smart machine technology process that can come at a higher than expected cost is Natural Language Processing, or NLP. As in other types of AI learning, Natural Language Processing requires higher and higher amounts of energy to achieve ever more accurate results. This means that the hardware run by the Natural Language Processing software requires huge amounts of electricity to operate. The processing hardware leaves a large carbon footprint that many software developers may be unwilling to acknowledge, or forced to ignore. 

Developing Sustainable Software

In order to develop truly sustainable software, software developers should be aware of the issues they will have to confront. They must take a proactive approach to designing software that anticipates subtle issues, such as the high energy consumption required to run program models. 

Looking Inwards

One approach that some software developers take to helping address the environmental issues surrounding software is to develop software that has a core purpose of solving environmental issues. This approach faces outwards and allows developers to use their skills to create software based solutions to external problems. But it still does not solve the issue of the energy required to run the software itself. 

For that problem, developers must look inwards. By focusing on creating sustainable software, developers can eliminate some of the environmental issues otherwise made worse by software itself. 

So what is green software? 

Green Software

Green software is software that meets regulatory requirements in regards to energy consumption and material resources required. It has a low carbon footprint and uses energy in a highly efficient way. Green software also has a long shelf life, with developers focused on renewing pre-existing softwares to maximize their usage, instead of always jumping on to the next latest and greatest new project. 

Software developers can focus on four main approaches to developing green software: selecting particular language, choosing specific AI models, using the latest tools available when developing the software, reducing data usage, and reviewing their options when it comes to designing and coding the software from the start.

Developing Language 

Studies around the sustainability of developing software are already revealing surprising conclusions. A 2018 study conducted by researchers in Portugal determined that the energy usage of software in development can be affected by the actual language the software is written in. Different programming languages can lead to different levels of energy efficiency. 

Programs may respond differently in terms of how fast they respond in any given language, and also how much memory is required to recall information or carry out tasks. Both of these factors can affect the amount of energy required to run the program, and thus the size of the carbon footprint created as a result. While this particular research study did not produce one conclusive and clear result, software developers working to create sustainable software should follow the most up to date research in this area to try to understand whether creating with a particular programming language can help lower the environmental impact of their software. 

Choosing AI Models

Focusing on the specific AI models involved in the developing software is one good angle towards creating a more green software in general. Software developers can work towards creating a machine learning model that requires much less power to run effectively. Developers can approach deep learning differently, and follow up on the latest (and ongoing) research to learn more about how deep learning works, and where it uses the most energy unnecessarily. Streamlining the deep learning process will be key to developing greener software.

One very sustainable approach is for developers to create and share their programming and coding sequences. Since each development of code requires plenty of testing and experimentation in the development phase, sharing code would cut down on the amount of duplicate work required, which would mean less energy waste. Companies can partner with startups and universities to share and exchange research towards sustainability in AI.  

AI developers can also work to hone specific hardware that is better equipped to handle the heavy demands of an AI learning program. Some major corporations are already working to develop and improve hardwarespecifically to meet the heavy workload demanded for AI programs. Software developers should move towards more efficient hardware that can work with less energy but as effectively.

Using the Latest Tools to Develop New Software 

The good news is that there are more tools and resources than ever before to aid developers as they try to lessen the carbon footprint of their development processes. One such aid, the Software Development Assistant from Intel, provides a method for software developers to measure the energy required by a certain system as the software enacts particular programs. This method of charting and gathering data about the energy that software programs use as the programs are being developed is called dynamic code analysis. 

By monitoring the amount and efficiency of energy usage as it relates to particular applications and tasks in real time, developers can adjust for sustainability and lessen the impact of energy waste by honing the software even at the level of specific, direct tasks. Monitoring energy consumption of a specific code or application in real time can allow developers to identify specific areas that can be tweaked for optimal energy usage. Charting and monitoring this type of data provides a powerful tool for measuring progress and energy efficiency as developers continue to hone and improve their design choices. 

Designing Software and Coding With Environmental Awareness

Awareness can make a big difference when it comes to designing with environmental sustainability in mind. Environmentally savvy software developers can write clever adaptations and adjustments into their programs that can cut down on energy waste and unnecessary data usage. 

For example, developers can watch out for loops in the software that use up energy without accomplishing any goals. By removing these types of loops, software no longer requires the hardware to draw power pointlessly. If there is a dead link on a site, for instance, that endlessly tries to pull up a server that can no longer be reached, this will only lead to waste. Developers can think of this type of loop as a form of energetic litter. Picking up the trash, or, in the case of software developing, removing unnecessary loops, can make for a more streamlined, and thus more efficient, program process. 

The same logic applies for unused features. Not only do unused features clutter a software and draw unnecessary energy, they also make software more difficult to work with, which can lead to that software becoming unusable much sooner. Removing features that are no longer in use can help prolong that software’s lifespan and increase its energy efficiency. 

Writing in code that attends to low power situations can also help create a more efficient software. Automatic low power modes mean the software dictates that the hardware temporarily runs on a lower level of energy, which consumes less, while preserving its basic functions. If the device is not in active use, there is no reason it should be running at full capacity, as this only wastes more energy and makes the software more unsustainable.

Reducing Data Usage

The more data is involved in running a particular program, the more energy will be required to store, recall, and access that data. Developers can cut down on the amount of data that is exchanged and write in expiration dates on stored data. Programs can use a more streamlined and effective cache policy which will reduce the amount of data required and stored in the background. 

For images and other media, large and high resolution files require much higher amounts of energy to maintain, so developers can reduce the amount of energy used by compressing stored media files. 

The same goes for accuracy levels. Not all programs need to produce the absolute highest level of accuracy. Determining where and how the software can release slightly less accurate results can go a long way towards cutting down on unnecessary energy usage. For example, a program that is meant to reveal the location of nearby friends does not need to produce results with a highly complex level of accuracy. Doing so would only increase the amount of energy wasted. 

Green Coding For The Future

With software becoming ever more pervasive, it is up to the developers of today to improve their carbon footprint. Approaching software development with a proactive, forward thinking attitude and philosophy means that the software being developed today can lead to a greener tech field in the future days to come. 

By paying attention to the real time data, monitoring energy usage for different specific tasks, cutting down on unnecessary data use, cleaning out unusable program features, clearing out dead links and loops, and keeping track of which programming language is most efficient, developers can make a lot of progress towards decreasing their carbon footprint. That is the way to create more sustainable, integrated software for a greener, environmentally friendly way of life. 


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