Energising the Green IT debate

W ere there to be a clampdown on IT’s runaway consumption of electricity, few in the industry would be taken by surprise. In recent years, servers, storage devices and related infrastructure have become notorious for their voracious appetite for electricity, even as energy prices soar and the planet warms. New reports cast a stark light on that uncomfortable position, analysing what steps must be taken towards ‘Green IT’.

Throughout 2007, vendors from all corners of the industry saw an opportunity to differentiate their products on the basis of reduced environmental impact. Among other aspects, they talked of cutting the use of heavy metals in IT equipment manufacturing; the cleaner disposal and recycling of redundant kit; the introduction of power management within systems; and the use of collaboration technologies to limit corporate travel. But the main thrust of their discussion has focused on energy.

A change of mindset

The two reports – one from the environmental charity Global Action Plan (GAP), the other from IT industry analyst house The 451 Group – take markedly different approaches to the subject, although both focus primarily on energy. And their stark conclusion is much the same: while energy efficiency has played no significant role in equipment purchasing decisions to date, in coming years organisations will adopt – or be forced to adopt – specific policies that mandate eco-efficient purchasing and management.

The GAP report, ‘An Inefficient Truth’, is very much a call to action, and is conveyed in a distinctly alarmist, even scolding, tone. It draws evidence from its own survey of IT directors and a host of scientific and government publications, to portray the (evidently dire) state of IT’s energy profile. It maintains that the IT sector, accounting for around 3% to 4% of global carbon emissions, has a similar carbon footprint to the aviation industry. But with skyrocketing consumption, IT will soon overtake air travel as a polluter. The 20-page report warns: “ICT equipment currently accounts for 10% of the UK’s energy bill. The average server has roughly the same annual carbon footprint as an SUV.“

Trewin Restorick, chair of GAP’s environmental IT leadership team, suggests that IT departments have been slow to address their carbon footprint: “Awareness is growing but ICT departments need help. They need vendors to give them better information rather than selling green froth; they need supportive and less contradictory government policies, and more support from their organisations.”

It is not clear whether GAP is calling for a carrot or a stick – whether it would welcome tax and other incentives designed to squeeze energy consumption or it is in favour of punitive measures from legislators that have historically demonstrated a weak grasp of the nuances of corporate IT.

The second report, by The 451 Group, goes beyond discussion of the current situation to analyse what can be done about it. ‘Eco-Efficient IT: The eco-imperative and its impact on suppliers and users 2007-2012’ notes that IT’s contribution to global warming is significant but assessment is complicated by factors as diverse as the energy sources that IT uses and the processes used in the manufacturing of IT equipment. Moreover, any calculation of IT’s environmental impact needs to include the positive impact IT has in reducing carbon emissions. As such, The 451 Group suggests that between 1% and 2% of global carbon emissions can be attributed to IT.

Technology solutions

The 152-page report comprehensively assesses the technologies being brought to bear on IT’s energy excesses and tries to cut through the hype with a thorough analysis of individual vendors’ activities in that agenda, a review of standards and policymakers, and an outline of approaches to benchmarking energy efficiency.

The call is for IT management to take a holistic view of IT’s relationship to energy. “Instead of presuming a defensive position, IT should assert its role as a positive force for change,” says the report.

However, it documents the realities of most of today’s decisions: “IT organisations will almost always favour reliability and cost over conformance to ill-defined green objectives,” says The 451 Group. But that is not always in conflict with a green agenda. Early efforts from BT, HSBC and others show that “most energy-saving programs in IT will pay for themselves”.

Further reading

The Internet is saving the planet New research finds the advent of the Internet has improved overall energy efficiency

Crossed wires Challenging the conventional data centre thinking. Eco-responisibilty in IT The IT industry is transforming from being an ecological pariah to a leading light

Find more stories in the Data Centres Briefing Room

Henry Catchpole

Henry Catchpole runs Inform Direct, a company records management software company which simplifies the process of dealing with Companies House. The business was set up in 2013.

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