How Green is the Internet?
If we asked you “what’s the single most polluting machine ever created by mankind?” What would your answer be? Cargo ships or jumbo jets are common responses. The internet, and all the thousands of data centres and power stations needed to support it, are in fact, collectively, the single most energy-intensive machine ever produced by man. It’s annual power consumption is thought to be equal to that of the entirety of Germany. So subtle is this energy monster that it never enters most people’s consciousness with regards to its environmental impact. Ships, cars and aircraft expel their visible, ‘dirty’ gases into the atmosphere. But your laptop sits there, cool and silent, consuming power to both keep itself running and with each browser request it makes on the world wide web.
The fact is that, with every search being made on Google, every document saved on the cloud or every web page you view, energy is required and storage is needed to store the millions of bytes of information you have just interacted with. Generally speaking, we’re also woefully neglectful of the tidiness of our digital selves. Ever downloaded something and never read it again? Or aimlessly clicked your way around a tabloid website to alleviate 10 minutes of boredom? Or taken all those dozens of pictures of your cat doing a slightly different face to the last one it did yesterday, never to look at 95% of them ever again? Yep, thought so. As Tom Greenwood, author of a wonderful book called ‘Sustainable Web Design’ states, “If the internet is a public space, then we ought to treat it as the most valuable of its kind—an internet that lacks organization and cleanliness should bring us discomfort the way a polluted watering hole or neglected public restroom would.” We show visible disgust at the old van that we’ve followed for the last 5 miles belching out black smoke, yet, possibly due to misinformation or lack of education, don’t give another thought to the 100+ web pages that we have visited that day that have likely contributed to more greenhouse emissions than our white van man had over that 5 mile journey.
If any of this seems far-fetched or like hyperbole, consider the complexity of what happens each time you attempt to load a single web page:
User selects a hyperlink.
This is also referred to as the initial request or the navigation start – which sends a request across the network to the web application server.
The request reaches the application for processing.
The request may take some time to start being processed. This could be the result of request queuing or it could be other factors.
The app finishes processing and sends an HTML response back across the network to the user's browser.
This is sometimes referred to as response start or first byte.
The user's browser begins receiving the HTML response.
It then starts to process the Document Object Model, or DOM.
The DOM finishes loading.
This point is known as DOM ready. Using the DOM, the user’s browser starts to render the page.
The page finishes rendering in the user's browser and the window load event fires.
For pages that use asynchronous loading, some elements may continue to load after the window load event occurs.
This occurs in around 150 milliseconds and happens in full for every search that the estimated 4 billion daily internet users are making. Also surprising to know is that the majority of the internet’s power usage is actually used for cooling. Servers operate optimally between 15 and 32 degrees celsius, which requires many gigawatts of energy to keep their server rooms cool enough to ensure steady performance and uptime.
Now, we’re not suggesting that we all stop Googling, browsing those autumn sales on your favourite fast fashion website or stop replying to your emails. Just like governments aren’t suggesting that you stop using your car, they know that simply isn’t going to happen. What we can do is make websites less energy and data intensive whilst performing the same fundamental operations through a variety of techniques, techniques that exist now and have done for some time. Our never-ending quest to make websites more engaging, exciting and interactive to stand out from the crowd has resulted in such techniques being cast aside in favour of festooning a website with more features that it actually needs, often unnecessarily for the purposes of impressing a client or customer.
A global change of mindset is required. The power consumption of the world wide web is no longer the unknown entity it used to be, and thus its ‘invisible’ nature simply isn’t a viable excuse any longer. Tom Greenwood aptly states “we’ve been designing websites with the mindset of someone packing for a road trip in the family SUV, not for a backpacking trip by train”. By utilising the extra computing power available to us as web developers, we’ve been unwittingly and blissfully ignorantly contributing to the WWW energy monster to the point that we’ve crafted some scarcely believable online creations, much like many vehicles, hotels, theme parks or landmarks that mankind is capable of. But, all this hedonistic explorative development carries a price tag attached to the planet and all its inhabitants, human or otherwise.
Contact us to discover how to reduce your website’s carbon impact and how we can work together to enhance your business’ digital operational footprint.
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