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Mobile App Sustainability: How Green Is Modern Software?

| January 12, 2021

It’s a new year and as good a time as any to talk about the intersection of technology and global problems – those looking to bring a digital product to the market may be wondering about app sustainability and the impact such software has on the environment. We’re at a critical moment in time where we need to be especially conscientious of how our actions will impact lives around the world and most importantly, the well-being of generations to come.

Though our devices aren’t noticeably emitting gag-inducing smog, they are responsible for contributing to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as well as waste when they’re no longer useful. For now, we’re going to forgo the discussion on the manufacturing and disposal of technology to discuss energy consumption from a couple of angles.

Why do app sustainability and green tech matter?

Ignoring conspiracy theories and bad science, renowned scientists the world over are in agreement that climate change is heavily influenced by human action. We mostly look at major contributors like the travel and shipping industries as well as the industrialization in less developed nations but when we dig a little deeper, we see that our tech – especially on the backend – pulls a lot of power. As such, it needs to be mitigated just like everything else.

Most of us don’t think about power consumption when we plug something in or install an appliance beyond the cost to run the device, if at all. Yet, our electricity has to come from somewhere!

Depending on the region you’re located in, power plants use different forms of fuel to create electricity that powers homes and businesses in the surrounding area. While some areas use green solutions like wind, solar, nuclear, and others to create emission-free power for their service area, some 62% of the US uses coal, natural gas, or petroleum which results in the production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. This means that running two identical devices for the same period in different locations will produce different levels of emissions.

Because the transition to cleaner energy is a slow process, companies need to be considerate regarding the effects their products have on the environment, even when they’re completely digital. Mobile apps and other software may not be gas-guzzling cruise ships, but the devices they run on and the servers that power them are still responsible for creating emissions. Developing smart not only sets a good example, but it also comes with a couple of other benefits as well.

Powering our technology and the green movements to reduce emissions

When it comes to app sustainability, the biggest power consumers are the backend servers which are responsible for hosting systems that run our apps and websites.

Globally, data centers are estimated to collectively consume about 205 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year based on figures from 2018 which is about 1% of the world’s electricity consumption, not factoring in power that’s generated on-site which we’ll discuss shortly. Since data centers are often pulling at least some percentage of their power from the grid, this results in emissions that vary depending on the geographic location of a site.

To combat this problem, many of the largest providers have made commitments to “go green” and power their locations with zero-emission solutions.

  • Amazon has several renewable energy projects around the globe that aim to make their data centers not only emission-free but reduce the usage of other resources like water which is used to cool locations.
  • Google has made a similar commitment and is currently the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy. The company is pushing the envelope of renewable energy development with efforts that intend to power more than just their data centers.
  • Microsoft provides a sustainability roadmap that indicates they plan to use all renewable energy by 2025 and produce zero waste by 2030.

Currently, these major providers and select others are setting the bar to reduce the output from society’s collective use of all the wonderful things that the Internet furnishes. But they’re not there quite yet – for example, watching Netflix in most regions still outputs about 36 grams of CO2 for every hour of streaming.

On the bright side, this is about as bad as it gets from an environmental perspective when looking at the backend. Still, mobile and web apps that command a lot of traffic demand a substantial amount of power to the run server instances that handle the bulk of the computing.

Achieving app sustainability: how to be as green as possible when developing software

There are few matters to consider if you aim to create a sustainable digital product. One of the most important factors relates to how green the data center operates where your product will live which means working with your developers or agency to find something that’s ecologically friendly. At Blue Label Labs, we almost exclusively use Amazon for the products we develop meaning you’re using one of the greenest providers available.

Another smart way to reduce your carbon footprint – and save money! – is to use as few server instances as required to effectively run your service. One way that we do this is by provisioning the necessary number of machines to facilitate your users in conjunction with Amazon EC2 Auto Scaling. Dynamic and predictive scaling ensures that the correct number of machines run when needed. This helps ensure that extra machines only run when they’re needed which keeps power consumption lower, plus it keeps costs lower.

App sustainability also means that developers need to be efficient in a few key areas when building both the backend and frontend. One way to avoid wasteful battery usage is to be mindful of calling on certain services, especially location services, as this consumes a substantial amount of power. Developers should also limit the number of calls that are made to the API layer – instead of requiring three or four method calls to accomplish a task, like populate a screen, it’s best to create a single API method to render a screen. Too, reducing the number of times an app checks for an update, for example, like with a chat function or other real-time service, can be accomplished by utilizing web sockets along with server-driven push notifications – this method is much more efficient than having an app constantly ping the server as this wastes battery and server CPU cycles. 

A well-designed app will perform better and inherently use less power as a result which keeps your users happy. The less your users are plugging in their device to charge, the less power they’re pulling from the power grid in their area.

Blue Label Labs builds apps to be efficient

We are a forward-thinking group of technology experts who build solutions for not just the modern era, but with the future in mind. Admittedly, in going with Amazon for our infrastructure needs, the ecological benefits were kind of an afterthought, at least at first. Nonetheless, we feel it’s important that we all do our part to make environmentally-conscious decisions and help our customers do the same for the sake of generations to come. Get in touch with us today if you’re looking to build an app that aligns with modern sustainability efforts.

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