The time for digital energy efficiency has come

« Applications are becoming increasingly heavy and energy-intensive, » warns Valérie Gombart. This ever-increasing energy consumption spiral leads us straight into a corner when global warming and the international context require us to reduce our energy expenditure.

Written by Valérie Gombart (Founder and CEO of Hi Inov – Dentressangle)

This summer, Ethereum, the exchange protocol on which the world’s second most widely used cryptocurrency is based, announced a major change in the architecture of its blockchain technology: the abandonment of the proof by work for the proof by the stake. Behind this technical jargon, understandable to insiders only, however, lies a small revolution.

By modifying its technical architecture, which validates all transactions, Ethereum hopes to reduce the energy consumption of its network by more than 99%, estimated today at 100 TWh per year, the equivalent of the annual energy consumption of the Netherlands.

A 60% increase in carbon footprint by 2040?

This is good news, as cryptoactives have been singled out for extravagant energy consumption for several years. Yet, the excessive energy consumption of the blockchain is just the tip of the iceberg, and the entire digital industry needs to reconsider its model.

In 2022, digital technology will account for 3 to 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (The Shift Project), the equivalent of air travel. Given its exponential use, experts estimate that if nothing is done, the carbon footprint of digital technology will have increased by 60% by 2040.

Since the release of the first Intel processor in 1971, Moore’s Law has allowed microprocessors’ power to double every two years at steady or even decreasing cost. This mastery of semi-conductor etching technologies has been the driving force behind the explosion of digital uses: at the beginning of the 2010 decade, computing power became ever greater and ever cheaper: by the end of the decade, it became almost infinite, and the uses of artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain exploded.

The ‘more is more’ rule

Yet, which digital entrepreneur is concerned today about server power and, therefore, the energy consumption required for his application? For a start-up, the infrastructure cost only amounts to a few thousand euros in its income statement, barely 10% of its turnover.

Very bad habits are developed from the start in the very choices of technical architectures of digital solutions, resulting in a far from necessary energy expenditure.

The prevailing rule is « more and more »: more and more power for servers, more and more storage capacity for databases, more and more layers of deep neural networks for Artificial Intelligence, and more and more instantaneous data synchronization, even though all these energy-consuming resources would be perfectly useless for the applications.

Heading for the wall

The sophistication of the digital industry has led to a specialization of the players to such an extent that application developers have become Lego assemblers. The « stacks », these functional bricks developed by other editors, are aggregated around the core of their software.

As a result, applications are becoming increasingly heavy, difficult to maintain and power guzzler. The easiest way to solve this equation is to add more servers and computing power! But this downward spiral of always more leads us straight into a wall at a time when global warming and the international context ask for a necessary reduction of our energy expenses.

Ensuring efficiency

Yet solutions exist: favour a technical architecture whose modules are optimized for the application developed; have a high level of requirement on the quality of the code, which must be as synthetic as possible; think about decentralizing certain functionalities to be executed locally, as close to the user as possible, rather than in a cloud sometimes thousands of kilometres away.

This is a guarantee of efficiency, not only energy efficiency but also financial efficiency, as well as product robustness. It is also feasible to reduce energy costs very quickly by systematically asking your cloud infrastructure provider about the energy consumption of its data center. The differences between providers can range from 1 to 10.

The debate on energy efficiency should not only concern large groups and industrial companies. Start-ups, entrepreneurs, technical directors, and digital investors have a responsibility and the means to lay the foundations for low-energy technical development « by design ».