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The Surprising Ways Tech Companies Can Reduce Their Carbon Footprint

When I first started working on sustainability with the ESG Committee at HubSpot, I spent a lot of time researching carbon emissions. If you think of industries that need to mitigate their impact on the environment, you might think of oil and gas, consumer packaged goods, and manufacturing. But, the software industry also leaves a considerable footprint; considering that data centers account for nearly 1% of the world’s electricity demand. That’s why software companies have a responsibility to build sustainable products, too.

I became an engineer because I wanted to build great software that solves problems. And I believe that for software to be great, it needs to be simple, purposeful, and deliver a delightful user experience. It turns out, when applications work efficiently, it’s not only good for business; it’s good for the planet.

The amount of electricity required to power your computer may seem insignificant. And the latency incurred by a slow-loading website, even more so. But, when you’re delivering a platform for hundreds of thousands of end users, every byte counts. An efficient website or application is one that optimizes performance, data transmission, and server utilization at scale. Below, I’ve outlined how focusing on efficiency can both reduce your carbon footprint and deliver a great product experience.

Improve performance on the front end

Ask anyone what they value most when it comes to their web experience and the answer you’ll likely get is speed. In fact, speed is so critical to the user experience that even minor changes in performance can drive significant changes in user behavior. Google noted that a half second delay can cause a 20% drop in traffic and Pinterest discovered that sign-ups increased by 15% when perceived wait times were reduced by 40%.

A few years ago, we realized we needed to deliver a faster, more reliable product experience for HubSpot’s customers. Our applications were running too slowly and creating friction in our customers’ ability to get their work done. And in a market where customers have no dearth of options for their tech stack, that was unacceptable. At the time, our CRM product was seeing more than 50 million pageviews a week and for our average user, it could take more than six seconds for a single page to load. To put that into perspective, our users were waiting more than nine years for our core app to load every week.

So, we launched an initiative called “Make HubSpot Fast.” In addition to establishing a dedicated team of engineers to address performance, we rolled out a framework focused on improving the responsiveness of the HubSpot application for all users. One piece of this framework was the introduction of a Latency Service Level Agreement (SLA), which defined how fast we expected pages to load across our applications. It took some time to work out the details around what we meant by fast and how we’d monitor and measure performance, but ultimately, we were able to improve the vast majority of page loads to happen within two seconds. We did this by focusing our efforts on specific applications that load on every page or for every customer, like the navigation bar, the home dashboard, and the login screen, as well as by improving the underlying systems and tools used by every engineering team.

Improving the performance of applications has a net positive impact on the emissions of end users by creating less energy usage in their offices and homes. When an application page loads in two seconds, the end user’s CPU runs fewer cycles and gets back to an idle state faster, meaning less battery used for the same task. For example, by removing 600KB of javascript from our CRM record page — a page that’s loaded millions of times — we created less bytes over the wire and less CPU cycles to process those bytes, shaving years off the time our customers would have waited for the page to load.

Enable shorter data transmission

How quickly data is sent from the server is key to the product experience, but also has a sizable impact on emissions. In addition to guzzling electricity, data centers are responsible for 0.3% of the world’s CO2 emissions. The good news is that in the past few years, the energy consumed by data centers has grown at a much lower rate than the computing done in data centers. That’s largely due to a shift to cloud computing. Even so, when you consider that the demand for data center services is increasing exponentially due to growing internet traffic, emerging technologies like AI, and the shift to hybrid work, it’s critical to consider ways to minimize energy consumption.

Last year, HubSpot opened a data center in Europe. Hosting data closer to where customers are is energy efficient because information has to travel a shorter distance, and that means fewer servers touch that data, leading to less electrical usage. It also improves latency and reliability, which contributes to a positive user experience. But since our customers are spread out across more than 120 countries, it’s not possible to locate a data center near all of them. That’s where a content delivery network (CDN) like Cloudflare comes in. A CDN delivers static website content via its own network of servers around the world — so a customer in Australia can access HubSpot’s applications from a local server faster than if the content had to travel from the U.S. or Europe to get to them. This means there is less network transmission overall, which is good for the environment.

While moving to renewable energy sources for computing power is a worthy ambition in the long-term, there’s a lot we can do in the interim to drive efficiencies in our data hosting, including working with providers who are making environmental sustainability a priority. In addition to providing a secure, fast, reliable network, Cloudflare has committed to lowering the carbon footprint of their operations, something I’m really excited about.

Invest in better server utilization

In addition to front end performance and data hosting, server utilization is an important contributor to both the product experience and carbon emissions.

Our product is made up of over 15,000 services and programs. We used to have a single server for every system we wanted to run, which was an inefficient use of both resources and energy. Since adopting container technologies, we’ve been able to pack those services onto several hundred servers and optimize our CPU and memory usage in order to utilize the servers as efficiently as possible. Container technologies like Apache Mesos and Kubernetes allow you to more strictly define how much compute resources each back end service should take and pack in more applications per machine, which results in better server utilization. That means less resource wastage, lower operating costs, and reduced infrastructure footprint.

As tech leaders, we have a responsibility to understand and act on our carbon footprint. Focusing on efficiency will not only drive the systemic change needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also deliver a delightful user experience and save on costs in the long-term, which is a great motivator for both your team and your company to do their part.

I’m heartened to see so many software companies committing to reducing their emissions and setting goals for energy efficiency, and I hope that trend continues. At HubSpot, we’re committed to mitigating our environmental impact as we grow and scale. I’m optimistic about the future of sustainability and look forward to collaborating on this important work with our employees, customers, and partners.

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