Environmental burdens

Technology executives everywhere are being squeezed on two fronts to make IT more energy efficient. Firstly, they are under pressure to rein in rising energy use – IT as a business function is set to double its power requirements over the next few years. And secondly, regulators are threatening to force organisations to be much more carbon efficient.

The situation in the UK contrasts sharply with that in the US. While data centre managers in the UK are facing the prospect of carbon taxes and electricity surcharges, their US counterparts are being offered discounts on their energy bills if they install energy-efficient technology and – in some states – discounts if they consume less electricity. “We’ve seen no evidence of such carrots being used here, we’re more likely to get the stick,” bemoans Steve O’Donnell, global data centre manager at BT.

Those sticks include the major piece of regulation that will affect IT’s energy-consumption profile. Under its Energy White Paper, the Government proposes to introduce a ‘cap-and-trade’ system for carbon emissions – targeting operations whose average burn over a 24-hour period tops 685kW. “We expect that a lot of data centres will fall into this category,” says Anson Wu, a consultant with AEA Energy & Environment, which advises the Government on energy policy.

A pilot scheme will be launched in 2010 whereby companies will be taxed on their carbon footprint. By 2013, the cap will come into force, placing a limit on the size of that footprint – companies will have to trade in carbon credits if they exceed that threshold.


But there are other pieces of regulation already having a direct impact on data centres’ relationship with energy. The data retention obligations that organisations are now under are a case in point. These have resulted in companies keeping all their data in perpetuity – paying scant regard to what is actually being stored, says Rajesh Sinha, technical director of consultant Bailey Teswaine. Vast amounts of energy are wasted by keeping all data accessible on constantly spinning disks – simply because no-one knows what can be thrown away.

Such data storage can be made more efficient through the use of data de-duplication technology and thin provisioning (which provides a mechanism for allocating storage almost on demand), he adds.

But business imperatives will inevitably ensure green initiatives play second fiddle, says Ken Robson, an infrastructure specialist at investment bank Lehman Brothers. “A one-hour outage in our data centre will cost us more money than we save in energy,” he notes.

Such views are characteristic of the pragmatic approach to eco-responsibility that is evolving around IT today. Back in 1992, printer company Kyocera Mita conducted a survey of business attitudes towards environmental practices; it repeated the study 15 years later. In the intervening years, business leaders have become more environmentally aware, says Tracy Rawling Church, marketing director for the company, but they show a discernible wariness: adoption of green practices remains patchy. Few companies have adopted simple policies such as printer power management, doubled-sided page printing or default ‘draft’ quality printing, despite these being standard features for years.

Some green practices are taking root, though, says Jordan Gross, managing director of managed hosting service provider Ultraspeed. The company had set out to reduce the amount of time its engineers spent replacing failed disks – and at the same time cut its carbon footprint. By taking disks out of local servers and creating a shared pool, the company has managed to cut drive failures and increase energy efficiency.

Such creative thinking is indicative of the IT sector’s capacity to innovate, but the regulators looking at the industry’s relationship with energy need to take a more comprehensive view of IT’s contribution to the environment, says Julian King, CEO of data centre operator Galileo Connect. IT has introduced huge efficiencies across the economy and these need to be accounted for when considering its impact on the environment. “Taken as a whole, I think you’ll find that the data centre is sustainable,” he insists.

Further reading

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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