techBREK event highlights: Sustainable software engineering – old principles for new impact

3rd April 2024

Article by Paul Hearns, Blockchain Ireland

Sustainable software engineering Old principles for new impact article image

Traditional engineering principles are being reapplied to software development and operation with implications for cost, efficiency and environmental impact.

At the latest in our techBREK series of network-and-learn events titled “Creating sustainable tech environments”, our panel of expert speakers discussed what sustainable software engineering means in a practical context, with insights from cloud and Web3 experts to understand how they can be applied for today and tomorrow. Read on below for an overview of what our speakers had to say on the topic.

The tech industry has a problem

Despite having tools at its disposal such as machine learning (ML), artificial Intelligence (AI), smart services, and elastic cloud to run it all, there is no escaping that it needs a lot of energy to power it all, and a lot of software in the form of operating systems, applications, and services to enable it.

Given developments such as low and no-code application and service development, as well as composable architectures, micro services, and the blurring of boundaries such as operational technology (OT) and pure information technology (IT), the tendency for real world, pure engineering principles to be overlooked in software engineering increases. Current estimates are that the worldwide tech industry, in terms of information infrastructure and services accounts for anywhere between 1.8 to 2.8% of global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions in 2020. If current trends continue, assuming a similar rate of emission-intensity of electricity powering the industry, the sector would be responsible for 830 MT of CO2 emissions by 2030.

The Sustainable Software Engineering (SSE) movement strives to bring basic engineering principles back to software architecture and design to focus on efficiency and least resource usage. Fundamentally, it is the application of core engineering principles to ensure applications and services are designed and developed in a manner that considers overall resource use. This approach is essentially doing more with less in order to reduce energy use, carbon emissions and water usage, with positive implications on overall cost of operations.

This approach in the context of developing applications and services that could potentially scale to global-level usage, could significantly strengthen broader decarbonisation efforts and allow organisations everywhere greater control and visibility of their environmental impact.

Sustainable software engineering exploration and discussion

Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet, in association with Technology Ireland, hosted a session in the techBREK series that examined this concept, with a host of expert speakers. Alan Carolan, Principal Security Analyst with Liberty IT, was joined by colleague Paddy Burns, Senior Software Engineer, to present on the principle and its application. Dr Horacio González-Vélez, Head of the Cloud Competency Centre at National College of Ireland (NCI), then gave a view from a cloud industry perspective, before a discussion panel with Karl Kyck, Senior Portfolio Architect with Liberty IT, John Durcan, Chief Technologist with IDA Ireland, and Paula Marie Kilgariff, Fashion 4.0 Entrepreneur and lecturer at Technological University Dublin, expanded on the topic.

Putting these impact figures into a local context, Carolan and Burns cited figures that suggest in 2022, 18% of electricity in Ireland was consumed by data centres, with an estimate that by 2030, this could become 30%, or more than all domestic usage. Furthermore, they highlighted that a typical data centre here might have an overall usage of 32MW, while an AI data centre might be as much as 80MW. Within this they also highlighted the anachronism that more than two thirds of data (68%) is not used post creation.

Software sustainability principles

Carolan and Burns described how SSE is the intentional inclusion of sustainability as a set of principles in software engineering, with the emphasis on the “skill and ingenuity of engineers,” empowering the “autonomy of the engineer” in achieving these aims. Taking the example of AWS, Carolan and Burns highlighted how the cloud provider is responsible for “sustainability of the cloud,” while the “customer is responsible for sustainability in the cloud”.  These responsibilities to the customer cover the headings of data storage, code efficiency, and utilisation and scaling, as well as platform deployments, application design and usage.

Citing the Green Software Foundation, the presenters illustrated a hierarchy of principles as a core set of competencies needed to define, run, and build green software; followed by patterns as a catalogue of how to apply green software principles in a vendor agnostic way; and finally practices as a catalogue of how to apply green software patterns in a vendor specific way. Training on the topic is already available from a number of sources, such as the Linux Foundation (LFC131), the Institute for Software Research, and Microsoft Training, but also supported by resources from the technology giants, such as IBM.

Low carbon intensity

With the advent of dynamic load management on cloud computing platforms, Carolan and Burns pointed out that it is now possible to move workloads to low carbon intensity areas. For example, one time zone might be low carbon intensity during certain hours in the day due to the energy generation mix at play and its demand compared to the same period at home, allowing cloud users to take advantage as part of an overall green operational strategy.

The presenters rounded out by citing the 6 Pillars of the Well-Architected Framework:

  • Security
  • Cost optimisation
  • Operational Excellence
  • Reliability
  • Performance efficiency
  • Sustainability

It was noted by the audience that in the past, security came far down the list of priorities in software development but over decades moved ever higher out of necessity. During the discussion, it was put to the panel that sustainability was on a similar journey and would likely move higher in the priority list.

Increasing consumption concerns

Citing figures from an EU Commission report on Green Data Centres, Dr Horacio González-Vélez said ICT consumes 5-9% of electricity globally, with data centres accounting for 2.7% of EU consumption. There is an expectation that DC power consumption in the EU will rise by 28% by 2030. Dr González-Vélez reinforced the point that AI activity, such as training large language models, can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes.

However, Dr González-Vélez highlighted such EU efforts as ‘Fit for 55’, where European Climate Law makes reaching the EU’s climate goal of reducing EU emissions by at least 55% by 2030 a legal obligation. EU countries are working on new legislation to achieve this goal, he said, and to make the EU climate neutral by 2050.

Other EU research and reports, such as “Energy-efficient Cloud Computing Technologies and Policies for an eco-friendly Cloud Market” (2022), said Dr González-Vélez, highlight how measures such as efficient cooling, heat re-use, capacity planning, infra eco-design, renewable energy use and better geographical siting can all help to underpin the impact of SSE, to mitigate the overall impact of ICT on GHG emissions.

Again, Dr González-Vélez highlighted that there are education resources available and growing, such the energy certified software development via organisations such as

Agenda point and lifetime view for sustainable software engineering

In the discussion panel, IDA Ireland’s John Durcan confirmed that sustainability is high on the agenda for incoming and represented multinationals here, with deep conversations about sustainability measures and practices. Ireland’s reputation in this space is a positive, said Durcan, facilitating these discussions to ensure the implementation of sustainability priorities from the outset.

Similarly, the topic is important for the students coming through education and into the workforce, confirmed TU Dublin’s Paula Marie Kilgariff. With particular regard to the likes of distributed applications and Web3, Kilgariff said there is a deep awareness of sustainability, but also an understanding that these measures must work for business too. This understanding, she said, is a boon, as students do not perceive sustainability as yet another burden or mere cost, but rather as an opportunity to do better and be better.

There was broad agreement by all present, that sustainable software engineering is progressing as a priority for organisations, and just as hardware is being examined for full, lifetime environmental impact, soon, software and applications will be similarly understood, labelled, and operated.

Unlock New Opportunities with Software Architecture

Working in Software Architecture is characterised by its dynamic nature, constantly evolving to meet the demands of an ever-changing technological landscape. Embrace innovation and stay ahead in this rapidly growing domain with Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet.

Learn More About Software Architecture Courses with Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet
Abstract background