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Measuring the Environmental Impact of Software and Cloud Services

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Software has an influence on the limitation of the service life or the increased energy consumption. It’s possible to measure the environmental impacts that are caused by cloud services.

Marina Köhn spoke about the environmental impact of software and cloud services at OOP 2022.

So far, the development of computer science has always followed the same pattern, Köhn explained, where new faster technology is developed, and software exploits the faster processors, the greater memory and data transfer volume. This begins a spiral that leads to equipment becoming obsolete because it can no longer meet the increased performance requirements imposed by the software, Köhn argued.

The design of the software architecture determines how much hardware and electrical power is required. Software can be economical or wasteful with hardware resources, Köhn stated:

Depending on how intelligently it is programmed, for example, it requires less or more processor power and memory.

Köhn mentioned that the greatest challenge lies not in the technical-physical area, but primarily in the economic and organizational conditions that lead to the premature failure of software. It can be entire product systems, such as the discontinuation of technical support or the lack of compatibility between different systems. The quality of software therefore also increasingly determines the service life, functionality and reliability of devices, she said.

The Federal Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt, ⁠UBA⁠) in Germany has created a method for measuring the environmental footprint of applications.

With our method, the environmental expenditure for the production of information technology and for the operation of data centers is recorded in the four impact categories:

  • Raw material expenditure (ADP)
  • Greenhouse gas emissions (GWP)
  • Cumulative energy expenditure (KEA)
  • Water consumption

The method has been applied for cloud services in the first step. The environmental effort determined in this way is distributed to the individual cloud services using allocation rules. Each service receives a percentage of the environmental impact of the data center, Köhn said.

InfoQ interviewed Marina Köhn about the environmental impact of software development.

InfoQ: How does software-related hardware obsolescence impact the life of consumer goods?

Marina Köhn: For several years now, the number of intelligent electrical devices and networked systems in everyday life and in households has been increasing rapidly. This also increases the risk of software obsolescence, i.e., the software-related shortening of the useful life of a technically functional device.

InfoQ: How does the blue Angel label work for software products?

Köhn: The Blue Angel has been the German government’s environmental label for 41 years.

The Blue Angel environmental label for Resource and Energy-Efficient Software Products may be awarded to products that use hardware resources in a particularly efficient manner and consume a low amount of energy during their use. In addition, these software products stand out due to their high level of transparency and give users greater freedom in their use of the software

InfoQ: What’s your definition of green cloud computing?

Köhn: Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient data to make this statement. In our research project, we have developed a method that can be used to provide information about the environmental effects of cloud services. The figures calculated in our research for the environmental effects of cloud services only apply to the respective case studies and are not fundamentally transferable to all similar cloud services. In order for the results to be used comparably, it is necessary to apply the methodology to a large number of data centers or cloud services.

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