5 Tips for running your digital business more sustainably

February 9, 2022

“Sustainable technology” sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it. Isn’t a digital business – or at least, the digital part of a business – sustainable by default? 

After all, a humming server doesn’t belch out toxic fumes. SaaS saves forest loads of paper. And new ways of working are keeping local coffee shops in business and fossil-fueled commuter journeys down. But in fact, digital businesses do have an impact on the environment – and when you add it all up, that impact can be surprisingly large. 

In this month’s blog, we’ll look at five ways you can build your business without turning our planet into a lifeless apocalyptic wasteland of parched fields and waterlogged cities. Read on and discover how you can hold your head high when Greta comes knocking.

  1. Going cloud: colocate for coolness

The principal engineering problem in computer design today isn’t how to cram in more cores or boost cycles per second. It’s getting rid of what those performance improvements leave behind: heat

TSMC’s Morris Chang (whose Taiwanese firm builds a large percentage of the world’s processors and graphics chips) calls cooling “the most important problem in electronic architecture today.”

A single desktop workstation sucks power equivalent to a small microwave oven. The minting of one BitCoin takes as much energy as 1.5m Visa card payments – an incredible 1,500+ kilowatt-hours. (That’s more than most houses use in a month.) And a simple rack of servers, smaller than an Ikea wardrobe, drains 8.2kW, enough to heat the average home in Winter.

While there are some innovative chip architectures that “reuse” energy internally, none are mainstream – so for the foreseeable future every laptop, desktop, and server will be liberating energy as heat in large volumes, warming the planet. So what can a green-thinking businesses do?

The solution here is go cloud, as much as you can. Because cloud computing happens in dedicated datacentres, where those server racks sit side-by-side, sharing the same cooling equipment for economies of scale. Also, because datacentres can be located remotely, near sources of cheap clean energy – many are built near hydroelectric plants – you can even check if their electricity is renewable or not. (If you’re as geeky as we are at Purr, you’ll spend a visit to Niagara Falls more fascinated by the number of nearby datacentres than by the waterfall.)

A strategy of SaaS and cloud services wherever possible, reducing your localised contribution to entropy, makes the best of a bad situation. So, think cloud. (Purr, of course, can build the apps that’ll help.)

  1. Choose hardware suppliers carefully …

Conventional wisdom is that old computers end up in landfill. Well, many do – but today, there’s a real effort by major vendors to make their hardware green. So look for vendors with a published policy on what happens when obsolescence looms, and use that information to guide your purchasing decision. (Remember: the more of us that do this, the greater effort the vendors will make.)

Truth is, for most businesses laptops and desktops – used for Excel, Word, and various SaaS – are a commodity; there’s no reason to go for high-end hardware. So look for the middle ground – hardware that’ll last a minimum three years and preferably over five – and manage their disposal at end-of-life by choosing the most . Leaders include Dell and HP, whose latest servers are 80% recyclable, but many others publish their green numbers; check their websites first.

  1. … and give new life to old technology

Third, check if “end of life” really is the end of useful service. Large companies tend to run replacement cycles of 3-5 years for desktops and sometimes less than two years for phones. But if a machine’s still performing for its user after that time, why not keep it running – perhaps by upgrading its processor, memory, and disk?

Th key here is to learn what your users are actually doing on their devices. For that average office PC, all it really needs is to be able to run the latest OS and browser, to keep up with security updates. (Apple and Microsoft tend to stop supporting OSes with updates after about 6-8 years.) Obviously, any developers and business analysts need decent computing horsepower for their virtual machines and PowerBI work. But for most users, a value-line device is all they need.

So instead of a replacement policy, put in place a check-and-upgrade policy. It’s good for the bottom line, too: a memory and disk swap can cost less than £200. If that buys an additional three years of life, your CFO will love you as much as the planet will. 

  1. Look into smart buildings and IoT

At its simplest, the “smart buildings” idea is about automating for gain. Sensors linked to each other and to control software on the Internet of Things can easily perform actions like switching off lights when an office is empty, or reducing air con to a conference room when it’s not in use. On its own, that’ll only save a couple of percent on your utility bills. But a smart buildings policy can go much further. 

A startling statistic: most SMEs don’t even know how many people are in the building each day. And for larger companies it’s much, much worse, even without taking Covid fallout into account. Think about it: you’re provisioning office space, heating and lighting, desktop equipment and cleaning schedules for 100 people … but there’s never more than 70 actually there. See the low hanging fruit?

This is where the “smart” prefix kicks in. With software (often called an IWMS, Integrated Workplace Management System) gathering information from diverse sources like your entry card system, people’s ID badges, timings of entry and exit, and what equipment is in use over the working day, smarter decisions can be made. Take the example above: if only 70% of your workforce is office based, could you get by with a third less square footage? And if you have two conference rooms but utilisation (“ute”) is 80% for one and 25% for the other, could you turn one into hot desks instead, saving space elsewhere?

The property management side of business may sound dull. But it’s actually a missed competitive advantage for many companies. If property is a quarter of your cost side, even a 10% reduction might double your operating profit margin. Sustainability can produce “green outcomes” in more ways than one. 

  1. Make the whole world your workplace

Converging with smart buildings is a concept called the “digital workplace”: not about offices, but about the changing way we work. It sees “the workplace” as simply wherever people do their best work – whether that’s at HQ, in their living rooms, or time-shifting from another part of the world. With 1.5m positions unfilled in the UK, hiring managers know they have to offer perks – and flexible working is among the best.

It’s hard to study how much CO2 is saved by cutting out the daily commute; estimates vary wildly but 1% is a common guess. (After all, those work-from-homers are still using electricity.)  But the opportunities are in the detail. Carbon footprints start falling dramatically when an employee’s commute is over 6km by car – which is almost everyone in many regions of the UK. So if your people are grumbling about returning to the office, offer them options … and focus on their connectivity to each other.

Microsoft’s Viva is an example of “employee engagement” software: it watches people for key metrics (patterns of application use, activity in meetings, number of emails etc) and rings alarms if someone seems in distress or disengaged. Satisfaction at work is highly correlated with how close a connection people feel to their colleagues and what’s going on – the “office buzz”. 

Of course, there are many potential pitfalls with software like Viva – but if such apps can be used sensitively, it can foster a positive workplace culture with a far lower carbon footprint, keeping a team vibrantly connected even if its people never meet in person. 

CONCLUSION: let’s play our part for sustainability

All this shows digital businesses aren’t exempt from thinking green. But here’s the bonus: adopting this mindset can look good on the bottom line, too. Purr has operated largely as a virtual company since 2020, and we’re as productive as ever, without needing acres of office space or a gut-wrenching electricity bill.

If that sounds like the sort of web development agency you’d like to work with, why not contact one of our team and talk over your needs? We’re here.