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carbon-aware computing

What is carbon-aware computing?

Carbon-aware computing, also referred to as carbon-intelligent computing, is a design principle of green software development and hardware. To be considered green, the hardware or software must have no adverse effects on the environment.

In practice, carbon-aware computing means users decide to consume renewable energy instead of fossil fuels to operate their systems, from a single user's laptop to a business selecting the optimal location for a data center to minimize or eliminate carbon impact.

Carbon-aware computing requires improving the efficiency of hardware without compromising performance. Likewise, software requiring less hardware horsepower continues to deliver a superior user experience through carbon-intelligent programming and development techniques.

How does carbon-aware computing work?

Software earns the green moniker by following a series of steps throughout development to reduce the effects of computing on the environment. These steps include reducing energy used during operation, requiring less hardware and making power source modifications to lower carbon footprints.

Even though it is a software solution, carbon-aware computing directly impacts its required hardware. For example, Microsoft added carbon awareness to a recent update of Windows 11, enabling users to schedule installations through Windows Update during off-peak usage, potentially reducing strain on the power grid. Microsoft also changed the default power settings for screen and sleep modes to help lower carbon emissions when the computer is idle.

A common strategy for data center operators to achieve green computing is to build the data center in a remote location, where operating costs are low. A second strategy is to use renewable energy, such as hydroelectric power. In Quincy, Wash., developers used both strategies to construct eight massive data centers in the center of the state, far from the more expensive and populous Seattle and Spokane regions. All eight data centers are powered by hydro from the Columbia River, which runs through Quincy, a town with less than 10,000 residents.

Benefits of carbon-aware computing

Carbon-aware computing involves making choices that benefit the biosphere. The benefits of making earth-first decisions include the following:

  • Minimized stress on the power grid without compromising computing performance.
  • Same -- or enhanced -- computing performance from hardware while using less power.
  • Reduced reliance on high-carbon sources of energy, such as coal-fired power plants.
  • Increased use of carbon-neutral energy sources, like wind and solar, to power devices.
  • Extended hardware life span and, therefore, decreased hardware disposal.
  • Improved ability to meet forthcoming green and sustainability goals and regulations.

Challenges of carbon-aware computing

For the longest time, the computer industry wasn't concerned with its power consumption, but that was before the days of PCs with a 1 kilowatt power supply or a data center the size of a football stadium. There are unique challenges advocates of carbon-neutral computing need to address.

For example, researchers are beginning to develop standard approaches to measure or model carbon emissions. The Energy Star rating system, begun in the late 20th century, remains the standard way to measure energy efficiency, but measuring a green footprint is more difficult. Besides vendors creating their own standards and measurements, energy efficiency does not necessarily translate to low carbon emissions. That's because a device -- a laptop or a server rack -- may be carbon-neutral, but the current process of making and disposing of the device is not. Furthermore, a user's PC, central processing unit and memory may be carbon-neutral, but other links in this chain -- the graphics processing unit (GPU), storage, display, power supply and many other components -- may not be. All these individual pieces require a streamlined approach in pursuit of carbon neutrality.

The future of carbon-aware computing

In the next two years, expect a strong industry move toward carbon neutrality throughout a product's lifecycle -- the manufacturing of equipment, its use and its disposal. That requires developing standard measurements for green compliance across all aspects of a component's life span. The carbon footprint of each piece of equipment in a desktop or laptop needs to be measured. Right now, the process is inconsistent from one component to the next. Monitors carry an Energy Star compliance logo, for example, but not GPUs.

Meanwhile, expect data centers to move workloads where they can be executed with less power. Google does this now, shifting movable computer tasks between different data centers based on time of day, physical location or the availability of carbon-free energy.

This was last updated in April 2023

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