Good Practices for Sustainable Software Development

by | 26. 06. 2024 | Software Development

Reading Time: 6 minutes

We live in a world of constant changes and innovations, but one aspect is gaining more importance than ever – sustainability! As we evolve technologically, we must remember that sustainable practices are not just a trend but a necessity.

Nowadays, every industry is moving in that direction, and software development is no exception. This industry is often considered environmentally harmless, as it does not visibly produce any emissions and waste. However, this is not true. Software development and the use of the software have an enormous impact on the environment, and there are many ways you can contribute to sustainability as a software developer.

In this article, we will explore how software impacts the environment and what steps you can take to become more sustainable.

Understanding the software’s environmental impact

Figure 1: Software impact on sustainability (Source: Harvard Business Review)

The software industry is linked to significant resource use, mostly because it is not designed with energy and material consumption in mind. The infrastructure supporting usage is the primary contributor to this impact. For desktop software, the devices that run these programs — such as PCs, tablets, mobile phones, and instruments — consume substantial amounts of resources. In the case of web-based software, supporting these applications is one of the largest sources of energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Software design inefficiencies amplify these issues. Software that does not prioritize efficient workflows for end-users can lead to increased material use and higher energy consumption due to more complex operations. This inefficiency translates to more time spent by users completing tasks, further increasing the overall environmental impact.

Moreover, poorly developed software requires more intensive maintenance. Constant adaptations and updates are necessary to fix bugs, address issues, and add new features that meet user demands. This ongoing maintenance consumes additional resources.

When software embedded or integrated with devices, such as laboratory instruments, does not offer a good user experience, efficiency, and overall usability, these instruments and the software quickly become obsolete. This results in another significant challenge regarding environmental impact and sustainability—electronic waste.

    Let’s talk about numbers

    Based on Energy.gov, data centers consume 10-50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building, and collectively, these account for approximately 2% of the total U.S. electricity use). Also, various studies estimate the carbon footprint of the digital economy to be between 2.3 – 3.7% percent of global CO₂ emissions (Source: The Shift Project). This has been more than a 100% jump since 2007, and the numbers are still growing.

    While precise estimates are always difficult to make this far out, some think ICT (Information and communication technology) could reach 14% of global emissions by 2040. We continue to see an ever greater uptake of energy-intensive technologies like AI and blockchain (Source: Accenture).

    Therefore, a step toward sustainability is necessary, and YOU can make an impact!

    What can I do?

    As a software developer or distributor, there are several actions you can take to contribute to sustainability:

    Understand

    One of the most important aspects of sustainability is understanding your customers and their requirements. When developers understand what features customers truly need, they can avoid unnecessary additions, making the software leaner and more resource-efficient. Intuitive, user-friendly interfaces reduce errors and speed up tasks, leading to lower energy consumption as it prevents unnecessary computational load, enhancing performance and sustainability.

    Be efficient

    You should consider several strategies to work efficiently and design more efficient software. First, try to optimize code by reducing redundancies. Use algorithms that work most efficiently for your use case by optimizing the data handling strategy. Efficient software reduces computational resource usage, leading to lower energy consumption, especially in data centers. It also extends the lifespan of existing hardware, minimizing electronic waste by reducing the need for frequent upgrades. Additionally, with minimal user input required, customers will also be more efficient and accurate, thus reducing time and consumables spent. To work efficiently, you can also use existing libraries and frameworks, have a project manager, etc., to avoid unnecessary overhead.

    You can learn more about efficiency by watching our webinar on How to be efficient in IVD software development.

    Choose wisely

    The energy consumption of software can vary significantly based on the programming language used. The difference in energy efficiency between the most and least efficient languages can exceed 4000% when solving the same computational problems. While the choice of programming language is often dictated by the specific use case and domain requirements, it is beneficial to evaluate which language will provide the best balance of performance and energy efficiency. In some cases, using a less energy-efficient language might lead to overall better system efficiency. Nevertheless, if possible, evaluate which language will provide the best overall software efficiency.

    Figure 2: Difference in energy consumption between some coding languages (Source: Fraunhofer IESE)

    Reuse

    Libraries and frameworks that promote code reuse contribute to more sustainable development practices. Utilizing open-source solutions can prevent the need to create redundant code and minimize resource wastage. Modular design allows for easy reuse of software components and documentation. Reusing data processing pipelines can reduce the computational overhead of repeated tasks. Leveraging cloud services that offer reusable components can streamline the development process. This can extend beyond code to include hardware, reducing e-waste and environmental impact.

    Test

    Testing software from the very beginning of the development process is crucial. It helps determine the software’s impact on hardware and energy consumption and identify areas where resource usage can be optimized. Testing will also reveal any bugs and issues with the software that usually lead to poor user experience, re-work, and mistakes. Those require additional maintenance to fix and prevent further issues, which is much less efficient than done before the software is already on the market. If possible, implement continuous integration and automated testing pipelines during and after development, which will help you be even more efficient and sustainable.

    Maintain

    Keeping software up to date can prevent performance degradation and increased energy consumption. Regularly refactoring code eliminates inefficiencies and reduces resource usage; regular maintenance with routine updates and patches can improve the security and efficiency of software, extending the lifespan of software. It also ensures newer, more efficient workflows and features and provides compatibility with modern hardware that is usually more energy efficient. Therefore, consistent maintenance practices demonstrate a commitment to sustainable software development. However, many companies still struggle with the maintenance process as it requires a lot of resources to obtain and analyze data.

    Monitor

    If possible, use monitoring tools to observe your software once it is on the market. Use telemetry and end-user behavior data collection tools that collect real-time data from software applications to understand their performance, usage patterns, and environmental impact. This data helps developers make informed decisions to enhance design, workflows, and performance. Additionally, you will be able to proactively detect issues and bugs and fix those before they can lead to serious overload for end-users. With those tools, your customers can access data, providing them with KPIs, predictive maintenance, and improved regulatory compliance.

    Learn more about the observability tools we developed as part of the TKT grant in our case study, Sustainable software development with a telemetry and user behavior analytics module.

    Conclusion

    • Understanding the environmental impact of software and implementing efficient practices can significantly improve sustainability.
    • By prioritizing user needs and avoiding unnecessary features, developers can create leaner, more resource-efficient applications.
    • Efficient coding practices and the use of optimal algorithms can lower energy consumption and extend the lifespan of software and hardware.
    • Reusing code and components and leveraging open-source solutions improves software efficiency and minimizes resource wastage.
    • Rigorous testing from the early stages of development ensures that software is efficient, reducing the need for intensive maintenance and rework.
    • Monitoring software performance through telemetry provides valuable insights into usage patterns and environmental impact, enabling continuous improvement.
    • Sustainable software development practices not only benefit the environment but also enhance user experience and satisfaction by providing efficient, reliable, and secure applications.
    • Embracing sustainability in software development demonstrates a commitment to responsible practices, positioning companies as leaders in the move toward a greener future.

    Are you planning a new software development project for life sciences? Learn more about our expertise.

    This article was prepared within project FlowTrack.
    The project is co-financed European Union – NextGeneration EU

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