The Secret to Sustainability Could Lie in Your Digital Platform


Published on

By Sandro Petterle, Chief Technology Officer, Rufus Leonard

A recent report from HSBC highlights 73% of UK companies plan to introduce net-zero emissions goals to their own operations, and 78% said they expect this greater focus on sustainability to result in increased sales over the next year.

From these conversations, questions often arise about how to reduce a company’s digital footprint, and what savings or profits might stem from it.

The technology stack can be a crucial driver for sustainability, and there are many opportunities to reduce your digital carbon footprint – from choosing the architecture, to hosting, site design, build and how you manage your content.

How ‘green’ is your tech stack?

Below are the three main energy-consuming areas of your digital platform, and our recommendations for how to reduce their impact:

Data centres: 

Most data centres and hosting providers offset their emissions and aim to use as much renewable energy as possible. When conducting platform selection, consider the hosting providers’ Power Usage Efficiency (PUE), renewable resources and offsetting commitments. Note: there is some displacement of that renewable energy which could be put to better use if used inefficiently, so ideally you would create a solution that’s less compute-intensive.

Transmission networks

Associated data transfer from your transmission network is the most commonly used metric for how green your page is – partially because it’s one of the easiest to measure, factoring in the number of megabytes transferred and how far they have to travel. According to IEA, data transmission networks across the globe consumed 260-340 TWh in 2020 – that’s 1.1 - 1.4% of global electricity use1.

The most common way to reduce the distance your data travels is edge computing, or “hosting on the edge”. Put your assets (ideally your entire website) on a Content Delivery Network (CDN) in a location near to the user devices where it’s being gathered, rather than a location that could be thousands of miles away.

End user devices: 

End user devices reflect the energy needed to power the website you are using. This energy could be used by the Central Processing Unit (CPU) required to run it, or the screen energy required to display the site.

High JavaScript sites with videos use a lot of CPU (plus, videos use a lot of transmission) and light-coloured sites use lots of pixel energy. Even red, green and blue have different energy consumptions. Faster sites that load pages quickly perform better in SEO, so there are also commercial benefits.

Four steps to a more energy-efficient digital platform

Working to improve all of this may seem like a big undertaking. There’s no denying that changes will take time, but there are steps to take that will help to manage the transition towards a more sustainable digital platform:

  1. Select an architecture most likely to be carbon efficient: 

Traditional monolithic architectures – in which tightly-coupled applications are powered by centralised servers using lots of data centre compute – provide the least flexibility to be carbon-efficient. Instead, consider more sustainable solutions: 

  • Composable and Headless

A composable approach is where the components of your architecture are modular and independent. This API-first architecture allows you to change and swap out the front-end (Headless) or other components of your platform easily, without changing the entire system. It gives you the flexibility to optimally size each part of the system and place it where it’s most efficient. 

  • Jamstack (JavaScript, API, Markup)

This architecture is designed to support a faster, more secure and easier to scale web. The entire front-end is prebuilt into highly optimised static pages, which can be served, pre-rendered, directly from a CDN – reducing cost, complexity, and risk. Serving user interface assets of Jamstack sites directly from a CDN delivers them quickly and securely, saving carbon by reducing the CPU processing on the end user and avoiding the data transfer from the Headless API.

  • Serverless

Most workloads run on provisioned servers, with demand for compute increasing daily. But not all workloads need dedicated compute. Instead of equipping cloud servers specifically for a workload or customer, serverless architecture uses them when and where they’re needed and de-allocates them once the workload has been executed. The result: storage, CPU and network bandwidth are used efficiently, only when necessary, and near to where they are needed, reducing data transfer.

  1. Limit data transfer across the network. This can be achieved in three simple ways: 
    • Put your workload on the edge, in a green hosting
    • Separate static and dynamic workloads into ‘frequently changed’ vs. ‘infrequently changed’ 
    • Work with your UX and design provider to design the best experience for the smallest impact
  2. Shift demand to limit waste:

Typically, electricity is produced so supply consistently meets demand; if surplus energy is generated from renewables, and our storage options are full, we end up disposing of that clean energy. If you can be flexible with when and where you run workloads, one way to combat this waste is demand shifting – moving workloads to times and locations where renewable energy is in surplus. 

  • In geographic shifting we follow the locations in the world where the energy network is running on more renewable power. 
  • In time shifting, we move electricity consumption from one time zone to another, generating returns through energy cost savings which are greater than the loss of production. 

In a composable, modular and serverless environment, it’s easier to shift the workloads as they’re not all tied together.

Essentially, demand shifting lets you choose to consume electricity when carbon intensity is less, and pause when it’s high. Studies have shown embracing this method could lead to carbon reduction of 45% - 99%3!

  1. Make sustainable choices with infrastructure and storage:
    • Choose a hosting provider with a good track record of sustainable hosting.

For example, all new and existing sites created on Cloudfare Pages are automatically certified as “green” on the Green Web Foundation’s Green Hosting Directory2. During any SaaS selection, always ask about the hosting provider’s sustainability credentials – e.g. offsetting and PUE.

  • Manage content so it’s lean, useful and doesn’t use more assets than needed. 

Sustainability doesn’t end when you build the site – managing your content and assets will make a difference. Top tip: deleting unused content also reduces data storage.

There is so much potential to make a big impact on your sustainability goals, simply through re-evaluating your technology stack and making changes where possible. 

Not only is reducing carbon impact a social responsibility, there is also a business opportunity too. The majority of businesses are planning to introduce net zero emissions goals over the coming years, and will be making big changes to ensure they can reach their goals. Those who are not actively competing by working to make significant improvements, risk losing out in the long run.

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