Environmental impact of software is now measurable

Wide divergence in energy consumption of computer programs

Binärer Code auf einem Bildschirm.Click to enlarge
How software is programmed can affect energy consumption.
Source: wechselbalg / Fotolia.com

Software has a significant impact on the resource efficiency of IT hardware and on how long it is used. Programs which execute the same functions can have very different levels of energy consumption depending on how they are programmed. The German Environment Agency (UBA) has developed criteria to assess the environmental impact of software products.

Regulatory requirements of minimum efficiency have up to now only applied to IT hardware– smartphones, tablets, laptops or computers. However, the software has at least as much influence on the energy and hardware efficiency of data processing. Recent examples have shown that the effect of software updates shortens service life or point to a jump in energy consumption because a device no longer switches to power-saving mode.

The German Environment Agency has developed a measuring system with supporting devices for the purpose of comparing software products. It is now possible to measure the share of energy consumed by software and hardware utilization. A total of 76 indicators were used to assess environmental impact in three areas: resource efficiency, potential useful life of hardware and autonomy of use (e.g. interoperability of software).

In order to test the catalogue of criteria and validity of the methodology, laboratory tests were done on software products in the product groups text processing, browser, content management system and database. A comparison of software products within each group and with the same functionality revealed relevant differences in terms of hardware resources use and energy. Take the example of text processing: the energy consumption of program 1 run on the same hardware to execute the standard usage scenario was nearly four times higher and processor utilization more than four times greater than with the comparable program 2.

The research outcome will make it possible to establish verifiable requirements of software for the efficiency of processing, storage and transfer of data. Software developers are helping to draw conclusions about the methodology and the developed tools, hardware utilization and energy consumption of software. They are providing support in designing resource-efficient software and can help purchasers of software and software development in general.

Further information:

The German Environment Agency commissioned the research project to the Institute for Applied Ecology and Environmental Campus Birkenfeld.

German Environment Agency

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau
Germany