Open-source for a more sustainable IT

June, 2024

When it comes to reducing hardware obsolescence, open-source software could prove to be a powerful weapon in the fight for more responsible digital technology. With a system that is more transparent, more adaptable and more community-based, open-source can greatly extend the lifespan of equipment.

“Open-source" has a very specific meaning, in the sense of the Open Source Definition, which is close to the Free Software Foundation definition of "free software"” explains François Pellegrini, president of NAOS Cluster: “it is a category of licences that allow recipients and users of software covered by such licences to regain rights on the software: usage, copying, modification and redistribution of modifications”.

Open-source software is a way of creating software that will be compatible with all types of digital equipment for longer, thereby helping to limit equipment renewal. In other words, it's a way of reducing hardware obsolescence. But even if many open-source projects are successful, there are still many steps to be taken before massive adoption by businesses.

There's no shortage of concrete examples of open-source software success; François Pellegrini cites Linux, Git and Blender. Linux is an alternative operating system to Windows and MacOS on desktop computers. On smartphones, Linux is even, according to François Pellegrini, the operating system “which helped wipe out Microsoft of the mobile device market”, since Android, which was instrumental for Google to achieve this goal, is an operating system for touchscreen mobile devices based on the Linux kernel.

Git is a version management software. Its best-known application is GitHub, a well-known platform for developers, acquired by Microsoft in 2018. “GitHub is a developer platform that allows developers to create, store, manage and share their code. It uses the Git software, providing the distributed version control of Git plus access control, bug tracking, software feature requests, task management, continuous integration, and wikis for every project.” (source: Wikipedia.org). Blender, for its part, is a leading-edge free software for 3D modelling, computer animation and rendering.

The community against the hardware obsolescence

According to François Pellegrini, “closed-source software is key to planned obsolescence.” The lock-in effect is a central issue in proprietary software. Once an organisation has adopted a software solution, it has its own habits and cannot easily change solutions. The cost of change is too high, both in financial terms and in terms of getting used to the new system. By relying on a closed technology, the supplier can then force you to change equipment without you really needing to, simply because they have decided on an upgrade without taking into account the need for backward compatibility, or because they have sealed an agreement with an equipment manufacturer.

In contrast, for François Pellegrini “open-source software, and ways to implement it (getting rid of "para-copyright") is the path to interoperability and durability.” Among other things, the open-source community is an unstoppable weapon against hardware obsolescence. By working together, the community maximises software compatibility to take into account most user situations. Thanks to its openness and ability to appeal to everyone, open-source software can gather a community eager to respond to this mission. “Open-source software has no benefit in itself without a community.”

For François Pellegrini, even if it's not always easy to derive a business model from an open source product, “almost all companies may benefit from some openness; in our work at NAOS Cluster, we are helping very big companies open up some of their processes.” He explains, among other things, that companies should focus on what could create significant technical debt, and open-source that part to benefit from community work. "Then, resources are freed and available to find ways of creating value elsewhere.”

To succeed in this approach, the company can also rely on existing open-source bricks. But François Pellegrini warns: “it’s not just a question to take off the shelf some open source product because it’s free; as a company, you need to put some workforce in the project governance, to ensure the product, as a strategic asset, will continue to match your needs in the long run. Regarding the software, you are not blindfolded.”

Transparency and adaptability, two key assets of open-source

Anna Zagorski, associate researcher at the German Environment Agency, also believes that open-source technology leads to greater resilience and better hardware efficiency. “Now coming to why open source is key to achieving this, I want to concentrate on two key benefits of open source: transparency and adaptability” she explains.

For her, too, the challenge is not to start from scratch, but to use bricks maintained by a community. “In the traditional decision-making process there is a commonly used strategy to decide between buy vs. build” she continues, “for standard functionality that does not provide differentiation to the business, the good practice is to take on the shelf products instead of build”.

When development is done in proprietary mode, the lack of transparency is everywhere in her eyes. And she makes the same observation as François Pellegrini: “We are forced to keep up with new releases to be within support whether new features are required or not. A lot of times, new releases are tested in the suppliers lab and require updated hardware to run”.

“Many devices are controlled by software, which means that to avoid hardware obsolescence, we need to compensate for it with better, more sustainable and open software.” Anna Zagorski insists, “What criteria should sustainable software have?”

An eco-label that tends to encourage open-source

To help and encourage companies to change their habits, the German Environment Agency addresses this issue by developing the Blue Angel for resource and energy-efficient software products. This environmental label for desktop software was launched in Germany in 2022 and the scope was extended to client-server software and mobile apps in June 2024. Software is a major driver of energy and resource consumption in digital infrastructures. Increasingly complex software means that functioning hardware is becoming obsolete and has to be replaced with new hardware. This is where the Blue Angel comes in and tries to address some of these problems.

The eco-label focuses on energy and data-saving software that is also as free of advertising and tracking as possible in order to promote energy-saving software, as this causes unnecessary data traffic. In addition, updates should be made available for a period of at least 5 years, as a lack of downward compatibility is also often a reason why non-functioning hardware is decommissioned.

The Blue Angel is an independent, governmental and multi-criteria eco-label that is primarily intended to promote and create transparency regarding energy and resource consumption in the software industry. However, it is also intended to specifically address public tenders, which represents a key lever in the direction of sustainable IT procurement.

The Ecolabel was not tailored to open source software from the outset, but the requirement for the greatest possible transparency means that it strongly promotes open source software. Open source software, which is based on the disclosure and reuse of programming code, can therefore be a key driver for the development of sustainable software.

An urban legend to overcome

There is also an urban legend, as François Pellegrini calls it: the one that open-source software is not pretty. For him, it’s often just a psychological barrier. “For example, we wanted our secretaries to use OpenOffice to edit text. We told them “here's a new version of Word” and, after a short period of adjustment, it was all sorted.”

“A lot has been put in the ergonomy in open-source software” he continues, “the situation has changed! This is the key to user adoption, and open source software fills the gaps!”. He details, for example, how Linux installation is now much simpler than installing Windows. According to François Pellegrini, ultimately, most of the obstacles are legal: tied sales, lack of access to open-source products in public tenders, absence of a European “Small Business Act”. All these obstacles can be overcome with political will.

A change in perception and a touch of regulation could enable open source to continue to be massively adopted on more applications. As its advocates explain, it's one of the bulwarks against hardware obsolescence. In the digital world, where two-thirds of the environmental footprint is caused by the manufacture of user terminals, this is a major challenge.

All the more so, since according to the UN's latest “Global e-waste monitor 2024” report, “A record 62 million tonnes of e-waste was produced in 2022, up 82% from 2010; on track to rise another 32%, to 82 million tonnes, in 2030”. Finding ways to reduce hardware obsolescence is more than ever a priority for a more sustainable digital world.


Anna Zagorski is associate researcher at the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt).

François Pellegrini is president of NAOS cluster and professor of informatics at Université de Bordeaux. They are both speakers at GreenTech Forum Brussels 2024 on the round table: How can open-source software help reduce hardware obsolescence

Article written by Rémy Marrone for GreenTech Forum Brussels

GreenTech Forum Brussels is the new Tech and Sustainability event.
Co-organised by the Belgian Institute for Sustainable IT, Numeum and SustAIn.brussels, it will take place the 18 et 19 of June 2024 at La Maison de la Poste in Brussels.
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