Is web performance optimization a “green” issue?

I live in a city with a bold ambition: to be the greenest city in the world by 2020. I try to do my part. I take the bus or walk to work, my family has only have one car that we use rarely, and we even use the ugly energy-efficient Christmas lights.

When it comes to my work, I also believe that I have a positive impact, and it makes me feel good when green is highlighted in our industry.

Last May, Steve Souders came up with a list of predictions about the future of web performance optimization. Prediction #3 was this:

“Finally we’ll see studies conducted that quantify how improving web performance reduces power consumption and ultimately shrinks the web’s carbon footprint.”

When I first read this, my immediate reaction was, “Wow. That’s a really cool, bold expectation.” Ever since, I’ve kept my eyes open for anything I can find about the impact of performance on energy use. Maybe I’m hanging out in the wrong part of the internet, but I haven’t had much luck.

Analyzing the trade-off between performance optimization and energy use is a huge challenge. It’s not enough to say, “We’re delivering smaller pages and fewer/smaller objects, therefore using less energy. Problem solved!” We also have to take into consideration:

  • the energy consumed by new machines added to the network to automatically transform web pages,
  • the impact on servers as more is offloaded in the network,
  • the change in use of a content delivery network,
  • the change in energy consumption at the client level based on increased or decreased CPU use,
  • the change in energy consumption of the user as they browse more pages and buy more,
  • etc., etc.

So while it would be great to see a simple “If _____, then _____” equation for calculating performance/energy savings, perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that not a lot of people have tackled this big hairy question.

A (very) few people have tried to tackle this question. These are the best articles and blog posts I’ve come across:

Steve Souders: How green is your web page?

This blog post is almost three years old, but still worth reading. Huge kudos to Steve for this exercise in quantifying how specific performance improvements (he uses Wikipedia as an example) could lead to energy savings. When I imagine helpful equations for calculating performance/energy benefits, I imagine them looking a lot like this.

Boston.com: Taking a different measure

Really interesting article that came out last fall about how Akamai is auditing the carbon footprint of its 70,000-server network. It’s a hugely ambitious project, which the company undertook after realizing that 87% of its carbon footprint came from its network operations. This is the kind of data we need. It’s a key piece of the puzzle in figuring out how to quantify performance and energy use.

Fast Company: Is the Internet Sustainable When Everyone On Earth Uses Over 3 Gigabytes of Data Per Day?

Scary quote alert…

“That’ll come to 2,570 exabytes per year for the global population, by 2030. (An exabyte is a billion gigabytes.) The average power needed to sustain such activity would be 1,175 gigawatts. It takes an entire large coal-fired power plant to produce just one gigawatt of energy, so imagine 1,175 of those churning out power just to fuel the world’s data hunger.”

That piece came out right before Christmas, and the fact that it appeared in a relatively mainstream publication like Fast Company is an indicator of the fact that these questions are not going to go away.

According to this report, video is a major bandwidth hog. Streaming/downloaded content from Netflix, YouTube, BitTorrent, and iTunes accounts for 40% of peak U.S. web traffic. (It may be a sad statement that, when I learned that YouTube users are uploading 35 hours of video per minute, my reaction was, “That’s all?”) Video also dominates mobile in pretty much the same proportion.

And that’s just the activity in the United States. Internet users in China log a total of one billion hours online every day, twice as much as Americans. Adoption rates are expected to more than double in the next three years, and not just in China. India, Brazil, Russia, and Indonesia are also poised to see a huge growth in the amount of time their citizens spend online.

So that’s it, the sum total of information I’ve found.

I’m an optimist. I believe that most problems have solutions. My hunch tells me that Steve is correct in postulating “Make your pages faster. It’s good for your users, good for you, and good for Mother Earth.” However, I don’t think we have enough data to confirm or deny what seems obvious. We need more data, and I for one am trying to work with customers to put together case studies that demonstrate positive environmental impact, as much for myself, so I can sleep at night, as for our industry as a whole.

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