Carbon obsession may hamstring efficiency drives

A consortium of IT companies, systems integrators and climate charity group Global Action Plan have called on the government to invest £1 billion in efficiency-boosting green IT initiatives.

The proposal, entitled ‘A Shared Vision for Smarter Services’, is backed by the public sector’s industry body Socitm (Socierty of Information Technology Management) and an assortment of technology industry players ranging from IBM to Logicalis.

Logicalis contends that a dedicated funding package, incorporating technologies ranging from virtualisation and flat screen monitors to desktop power saving initiatives and greater adoption of remote working practices, could make “a full return on its own investment within three years and eventually triple its payback.”

While the move is obviously intended to drum up some business for the systems integrators and IT service providers, it was interesting to hear talk of efficiency and ROI supplant green politicking. Green IT, it appears, is offering to pay its own way.

The plea came in the form of a panel debate held on June 25 in the House of Commons, attended by MP Andrew Miller, chairman of the parliamentary information technology committee.

Miller said that improving the efficiency and eco-friendliness of services to the levels demanded by climate regulation “would not happen with government working in isolation, it will happen as a result of partnerships.”

While that comment caused a sparkle in the eyes of the large vendors and service providers on the panel, including IBM and CA, Miller noted that the government’s sourcing of solutions and innovation should not necessarily come from “the big boys.”

“The way government procurement works creates an obstacle there,” he acknowledged. “Anyone comes across these obstacles needs to flag them up, because government has to understand where these problems lie because none of us can from the centre.”

He also raised the issue of cultural barriers to the adoption of many green IT initiatives, such as remote working.

“Teleworking requires HR managers to rethink how they train staff to relate to each other and managers to manage, and there are great chunks of society that haven’t really got that you can manage people remotely without logging their keystrokes or crude things like that, and get massive productivity gains.”

But, as often happens at these events (particularly those orchestrated by a climate charity), talk of efficiency quickly reverted to talk of making IT systems greener, which quickly brought up the subject of carbon.

Carbon reduction, while overtly the goal of any green IT project, is a second-rate method of measuring the efficiency of technology and grossly simplifies the debate by engulfing good engineering in a web of green politics.

In a simple example, a more powerful processor or storage unit may suck more juice and emit more carbon, but the extra CPU cycles or terabytes gained per megawatt can enable far greater gains when put to work improving the efficiency of other industry sectors. The green obsession with carbon emissions as a unit of measurement risks IT being hamstrung in the green debate as a polluting villian rather than an enabler.

A more transparent picture emerged as several people at the Global Action Plan event acknowledged that ‘green’ was actually a useful political lever to encourage the government to be more efficient, a noble if somewhat roundabout method. Alas, it proved once again that when it comes to green, politics often trumps engineering.

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