IT takes responsibility

The broad  list of  disciplines of the delegates  attending Information Age’s inaugural Eco-Responsibility in IT conference in November confirmed one fact: interest in the subject has never been so high or so broad.

Why IT’s relationship with the planet has garnered so much attention is not immediately obvious. Quantifying technology’s environmental impact is difficult; analyst group Gartner’s best estimate is that IT within business and the public sector accounts for 2% of global energy consumed annually. And while that is a noteworthy figure, it illustrates how IT is still a relatively minor source of carbon consumption compared to, say, the kerosene-guzzling activities of the airlines.

What does set IT apart, however, is that, unlike some of the major polluters, the industry seems capable of taking control of its runaway appetite for energy.

That imperative for lower power usage is not being driven by truly altruistic concern for the planet.

The heightened public awareness of climate change has helped focus many senior management minds on their organisation’s carbon profile, but those party to senior discussions know there is one overriding motive, and it is not ‘save the planet’. Primarily, the major energy  initiatives being undertaken by blue-chip businesses are “driven purely by capitalism”, says Steve O’Donnell, global head of data centres at BT. The combination of IT’s soaring demand for power and rapidly rising energy prices means that energy efficiency has become easy to sell to the management board.

However, there is quite a leap between recognising that IT environments can be made more energy efficient and enacting the measures that are required to achieve those savings. No-one is under any illusion that companies will somehow stop demanding more powerful IT servers or decide to store less data. Indeed, according to Anson Wu, from consultant AEA Energy & Environment, in spite of current best efforts, IT’s overall energy use is expected to increase by 14% between now and 2020. Of even greater concern, data centre electricity use is predicted to double over that time frame.

Given that, the issue is how to ensure IT is able to use energy as efficiently as possible – and certainly more efficiently than it does today. Only a fraction of the power that is drawn by most modern data centres, for example, is actually used on the processing workload.

With IT’s innate need for electricity, any plan to streamline its use needs careful planning, says Gill Hall, director of climate change at technology giant IBM. IT will not become energy efficient overnight, so business leaders must ensure IT programmes generate enough enthusiasm within organisations for the initiatives to become self-sustaining. These might range from virtualising servers to streamlining corporate supply chains, says Hall. The principle must be to target what is significant, not what is easy, she adds.

Future reductions

Some companies started early down that road. Compared to 1996 levels, BT, for example, has reduced its power consumption by 60% – it aims to achieve an 80% reduction by 2016. For the telecoms giant, one of the first priorities was to build a comprehensive IT asset register, which O’Donnell says has saved BT more than £16 million by allowing it to identify and retire obsolete equipment.

But more than asset management, one technology in particular emerged at the Eco-Responsibility in IT conference as having the most impact. Virtualisation was universally acclaimed for its ability to reduce electricity bills. Speakers and panellists all agreed that virtualisation – specifically commodity server virtualisation – can dramatically improve utilisation rates and even lead to a requirement for fewer servers, thus delivering equivalent processing power for less electricity.

That was highlighted by the application of server virtualisation at Sheffield Hallam University. As its service support manager, Dave Thornley, explains, that has led to a cut in IT electricity bills of £15,000 a year – even as the organisation’s demand for applications has risen sharply over the three years it has been operating its virtual environment. The physical infrastructure needed to meet that demand in a non-virtualised environment would result in electricity bills nearly £40,000 higher, he estimates.

Of course, virtualisation has its limits. Managers should be aware that its application is a “one shot deal”, cautions Liam Newcombe, chairman of the data centre group at the British Computer Society (BCS). Once the server estate has been virtualised, there are no more efficiencies that can be wrung out.

Strong contenders

But there are plenty of other areas where IT is wasting energy. One obvious place to look for further efficiencies is in data centre cooling systems. In the UK, ‘free air’ cooling – whereby the building uses air drawn from outside the building rather than cooling air already inside the centre – can be effective for around 90% of the year, says Newcombe.

There are plenty of other practical energy-saving approaches, suggests Sheffield Hallam’s Thornley. Simple practices, such as powering down equipment when not in use, can cut unnecessary usage. Power management tools have become increasingly sophisticated and capable of powering down machines safely when they are idle, he adds.

Such actions need not be restricted to desktop devices, says Rajesh Sinha, technical director at networking consultant Bailey Teswaine. A detailed look at an enterprise’s network topology usually identifies switches and routers that can be turned off. The introduction of power line technology or power over Ethernet can give more granular control over devices on the network, while also having the environmental benefit of sharing copper and plastic in the wiring.

It is possible to squeeze efficiencies at every point in the data centre, says BT’s O’Donnell. Currently just 6% of the electricity generated at source to power a data centre will go to running the workload, he says. Moving on from that meagre level requires some radical rethinking of data centre operations.

For example, most high-end data centres are located within a small radius of London’s financial centre. Yet the big losses in terms of efficiency come when electricity is sent across the grid, notes O’Donnell. Minimising the distance between the data centre and power plant can make a big difference. BT is investing heavily in micro-generation and has committed £250 million to building wind farms on its sites. By 2016, it believes these will supply a quarter of its electricity needs.

Given IT’s craving for power, switching to renewable sources would have the most lasting impact on shrinking IT’s carbon footprint, says Kelly Smith, managing director of managed hosting service provider Smartbunker. Even if businesses cannot afford a wind farm-building programme on the scale of BT, it is still possible to find suppliers who will

re-supply 100% renewable energy to the grid, he says. Smartbunker already bills itself as “the zero carbon data centre”.

Currently, there is a premium to be paid for attaining this kind of green profile. However, the additional costs can be offset by introducing more energy-efficient practices into the data centre, making it, at worst, a revenue-neutral proposition. Given the mountain any IT management needs to climb even to cap its organisation’s carbon footprint, that kind of option will become increasingly attractive.

The lessons

AT Eco-Responsibility in IT 07 there was a sense of urgency about changing IT’s reputation as not just

an energy hog but an energy waster. Delegates heard about the chief causes of inefficiency and offered plenty of routes to greener IT.


Only a fraction of the electricity delivered to data centres goes to powering IT equipment. The process of converting it from DC to AC current is hugely inefficient, but most data centres are set up to make that conversion at least twice before the power reaches the IT kit.

Power is often quietly being drawn upon by servers running unused applications, which sit unnoticed in a corner of the corporate data centre. “If you conduct a rigorous asset audit, I guarantee you’ll find things in the data centre you can turn off,” says Steve O’Donnell, global head of data centres at BT.

Seriously uncool

The imperative to make the most of what you’ve got has encouraged some data centre managers to really sweat their assets. Data centres have been crammed ever tighter with servers, but for all of its advantages, high-density computing comes at a price.

The introduction of hot-running servers, tightly packed into racks, has compelled managers to introduce extensive cooling systems, from fans to chillers. The result? Power inflation – so that for every watt that powers a server, an additional watt is required to keep it from overheating.

Green meetings

The green technology equation can work both ways. Though a significant source of carbon emissions, IT can also be used to reduce an organisation’s energy use, says Rick Snyder of Tandberg America.

Tandberg has traditionally sold its videoconferencing services and technologies on an ability to reduce travel expense and increase productivity, but now the message is about “keeping your people off aeroplanes”. That is really starting to resonate in eco-aware boardrooms, says Snyder.

He cites customers such as mobile giant Vodafone, which has made huge savings by insisting that employees cannot book flights without considering a videoconference first.

But such moves can give way to much more – there are secondary benefits of being green, says Snyder.

Global research by Tandberg into attitudes towards eco-centric companies highlights how 53% of respondents were more likely to purchase from companies with good environmental credentials and 80% favoured green companies when it came to choosing an employer.

Fat clients

Being truly eco-responsible is not just a matter of cutting electricity use. By almost every measure, the near-ubiquitous PC is more wasteful than any thin-client alternative, says Christian Knermann of the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, which has carried out extensive research into the environmental impact of PC and thin-client infrastructures.

Thin clients are invariably “less material intensive than PCs”, says Knermann. Even the most conservative estimate makes thin clients twice as energy efficient as PCs, he adds, and that includes the power to run the central servers. Had 25% of PC buyers opted for thin clients, 680,000 tonnes of CO2 would never have been released, he highlights.

The erosion of performance barriers and improvements in user interfaces make thin clients an increasingly viable alternative to the PC, insists Knermann. PC virtualisation makes the proposition even more alluring.

Technology failings

If IT is to become a greener part of the business, then software and storage must also adopt a more environmental approach.

In the era of cheap processing power, few software developers ever consider how long their code will take to execute on the processor, notes Liam Newcombe of the BCS.  Development environments need to encourage programmers to ensure the software they are producing is tuned for lower power consumption, he argues.

The manner in which data is stored further exacerbates IT’s waste. Though storage accounts for a relatively low percentage of IT’s energy use, it can still be made more efficient, notes Lehman Brothers’ Robson. Thin provisioning and single-instance storage will help ensure that disks are not spinning unnecessarily, he adds.

Green Wash

One of the biggest concerns expressed time and again at Eco-Responsibility in IT 07 was the danger described as ‘green wash’ –  the adoption of a marketing profile that creates a veneer of care for the environment. Tree planting is a prime example, argues Kelly Smith, MD at Smartbunker. “The idea of planting trees to offset energy use has been discredited.”

Similarly, IT managers wooed with promises of more energy-efficient hardware would do well to consider the entire product lifecycle when evaluating power use. The “average piece of IT hardware” can be expected to consume up to four times as much electricity in the manufacturing and disposal phases as it does in operating, reports BCS’s Newcombe.

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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