Guiding Sustainable Digitalization in Baden-Württemberg

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An HLRS-led project called ENRICH will develop a digital atlas to predict IT sector growth across the state and identify opportunities to increase energy efficiency and sustainability.

Innovation in information technologies and high-performance computing (HPC) has been rapid over recent decades and shows no signs of slowing down. One side effect of this trend, however, is that increased digitalization has also caused rapid increases in energy demand and resource consumption. Considering the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts, understanding how usage of digital technologies will evolve in upcoming years and identifying strategies for improving their environmental performance will need to be an essential part of planning for future technological developments.  

In a new project called ENRICH (Energie, Nachhaltigkeit, Ressourceneffizienz in IT und Rechenzentren), the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) will lead a collaborative effort to investigate the future of digitalization across the state of Baden-Württemberg, and to identify opportunities to make computing centers more sustainable. The two-year project is funded by the State of Baden-Württemberg Ministry of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector. Also participating are members of the University of Stuttgart's Institute of Energy Economics and Rational Energy Use (Institut für Energiewirtschaft und Rationelle Energieanwendung, IER), DIALOGIK gGmbH, and the University of Ulm, as well as Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), the manufacturer of HLRS's flagship supercomputer, called Hawk. 

According to HLRS Director Prof. Michael Resch, who is leading the ENRICH project, "This grant will not only help HLRS continue its efforts to improve its own sustainability and environmental performance, but also enable us to assess the effects of digitalization across Baden-Württemberg more generally. In the end, our hope is that our findings and recommendations will help identify new opportunities for saving energy, and support others in the IT-sector in applying more sustainable operating practices."

Megatrends in digitalization

Planning for sustainable digital technologies in Baden-Württemberg will require understanding the long-term social, economic, and cultural megatrends in which these technologies will evolve. As part of the ENRICH project, the IER's Prof. Peter Radgen will systematically investigate how digital innovation is likely to affect a variety of sectors — for example, mobility, industrial manufacturing, and farming — as well as the environmental opportunities and challenges that increased digital networking creates.  

“Data is the raw material of the future," says Radgen, "but at the same time we are consuming more and more natural resources to process this data. Solution and problem are two sides of the same coin.”  

One important component of this study will be to look at the potential impacts of increased use of artificial intelligence (AI). Here the emphasis will be not only on how growth of AI technologies could increase energy requirements, but also on how AI methods could be applied to help manage energy usage more efficiently.

Sustainable HPC technology procurement and operations

In parallel, HLRS will look closely at two key issues regarding sustainability in computing centers — the lifecycle of digital technologies and their efficient operation.   In the first case, HLRS staff will identify examples of procurement processes that demonstrate how to achieve a more optimal balance among key factors that influence the purchasing of new hardware, software, and other digital office equipment: technical requirements, procurement guidelines, cost constraints, and sustainability concerns. This work package will also consider issues related to responsible supply chain management and disposal of electric waste at the conclusion of a product's life cycle.  

In another work package, ENRICH will focus on current trends and developments concerning the sustainable operation of high-performance computing centers. Working together with HPE, HLRS staff will investigate methods for tracking and increasing energy efficiency. This will include looking closely at the energy requirements for specific kinds of software, strategies for optimizing software performance efficiency on HPC systems, and possibilities for saving energy through the implementation of intelligent networks. In addition, researchers from the University of Ulm will investigate opportunities for energy savings in the operation of digital office infrastructure.

Mapping the road forward

Identifying best practices for the sustainable procurement and use of digital technologies will only be effective in practice if the recommended measures are welcomed and adopted by the IT user community. For this reason, ENRICH will organize a series of workshops to gain a better understanding of users' perspectives on relevant megatrends and to discuss the feasibility of potential recommendations for more efficient computing center operations.  

At the conclusion of the project, ENRICH will produce a "digital atlas" for Baden-Württemberg that provides a geographic overview of relevant facts, numerical data, and projections about potential digitalization. The atlas will provide a guide to digitalization for stakeholders from industry, politics, government, and citizen groups around the state.  

Importantly, the data contained in the digital atlas will be compatible with Baden-Württemberg's currently existing energy atlas. This coupling could make it easier to identify opportunities for reusing the waste heat produced by computing centers to heat other buildings. Such symbioses could help reduce current levels of carbon emissions produced in the generation and distribution of heat.  

ENRICH will participate virtually in the Baden-Württemberg Kolloquium Umweltforschung on July 6, 2021, and also intends to hold future public workshops and produce informational material to promote a better understanding of best practices for sustainable procurement and sustainable operations in the IT sector. 

By developing better models of future developments in the IT sector as well as recommendations for sustainable computing center operations, ENRICH should deliver a road map that will enable the State of Baden-Württemberg to better navigate future developments in digitalization.

— Christopher Williams