Are environmental concerns governing business use of technology?

Are environmental concerns on the cusp of introducing radical new principles governing businesses’ use of technology? Cooler winters and warmer autumns have certainly heightened worries over global warming; spiralling prices are forcing senior executives to re-examine corporate energy usage; being socially responsible may be a hit with consumers. Green business, it seems, makes good business sense.

An increasing number of IT vendors agree. “In a world of high energy costs, not only does it make absolute sense for the environment to reduce your energy usage, but it makes absolute sense for the business,” says Charlotte Grezo, group corporate-responsibility director at mobile giant Vodafone. IT has a role to play in helping businesses tighten their grip on energy consumption, she adds.

Vodafone has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2011. It is upgrading its network infrastructure, moving to greener equipment. By March 2008, Vodafone will be 25% more energy efficient. “The really big wins will come in making sure that we get the most out of energy-efficient equipment,” says Grezo.

Yet even an apparently obvious claim – that IT can become green – turns out to be controversial. Vodafone’s target is not absolute: it is ‘normalised’ by being linked to the business’s activity – measured on the basis of the volume of data traffic. It is not capping energy use, so if Vodafone succeeds in its aim to get customers to use more of its services, the size of its carbon footprint will inevitably increase.

That does not mean that Vodafone’s commitment to the environment is not genuine. It is simply a victim of businesses’ unquenchable appetite for electricity. It is virtually axiomatic that growing businesses need increasing amounts of energy.

Modern businesses are built on technology that requires escalating volumes of electricity. For most organisations an environmental goal can only be one of being more energy efficient, not one of consuming less energy.

Power hungry

There is no likelihood that IT will be consuming less electricity, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions, at any point soon. As business leaders have increased their reliance on IT systems to improve productivity, they have become addicted to ever more powerful enterprise applications. The ability to suck-in more granular information about business performance through increasingly sophisticated supply chains; applying superior analytics to operational data; increasing the power and speed of business modelling application; these all require more computational power.

This demand for computational power has an easily understood consequence: More powerful computers consume more electricity and over time, this means increasing volumes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.

Data centres – the engine rooms of today’s operations – were originally designed to house racks of servers consuming single figures of kilowatts (kw) of electricity each hour. The evolution of high-density computing is pushing rack consumption towards 25kw per hour. These racks need air conditioning units to cool them, further increasing electricity usage.

This has not gone unnoticed within the IT industry. There is a glut of vendors more than willing to play up their green credentials. But if IT leaders are committed to becoming more environmentally friendly, there is no room for marketing puff, says Steve Prentice of analyst group Gartner. “You cannot have just a façade now of being green, you’ve actually got to live the claim.”

Living that claim, however, is not easy for the concerned IT professional. The arms race between hardware makers such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard to produce the most energy-efficient blades might be forcing the pace to produce greener computers, but the rivalry between these companies means there is no common benchmark for energy efficiency, making the choice between equipment from different vendors opaque.

The vendors agree that the implementation of standards is crucial, but there is no agreement on how to develop such benchmarks. The closest thing to a standard for eco-friendly hardware, at present, is the Energy Star labelling system, run by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Accreditation is only given to the 25% most efficient pieces of hardware – from PCs and printers to servers – that apply to the scheme.

While this allows users to make apple-for-apple comparisons, vendors are wary of participating in a scheme that effectively blacklists those 75% of products that don’t make the grade.

Brought to book

This inability of vendors to agree on a common green future increases the likelihood of government intervention, says Patrick Fogarty of Norman, Disney and Young, a consulting practice which focuses on helping businesses engineer environmentally sustainable designs. At the DataCentre Dynamics conference, he put it in simple terms for the delegates: “If we don’t sort it out, someone will come and do it for us.”

This is not a welcome prospect. The danger is that legislation will be “crude and ineffective”, says Gartner’s Prentice, imposing regulations that do not help the environmental efforts [See box – Regulatory Hazards].

If governments cannot resist involving themselves in imposing some form of energy efficient business practices, they would be well advised to restrict their role to providing best-practice guidelines rather than strict rules, says Gordon Graylish, vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at chip maker, Intel.

There are clear incentives for improving energy efficiency: rising energy prices make it imperative that electricity is not wasted; consumers may be more positive towards demonstrably green businesses. Being environmentally responsible “is not altruistic”, says Prentice.

There is hope that business can move towards green computing, but it is a long-term project. So despite the best efforts being made today, it is still far too early to imagine that green computing is having a major impact on the environment.

The data centre dilemma

Modern data centres have become insatiable consumers of power. Server racks traditionally operating at two kilowatts of power per hour have been forced to accommodate more tightly-packed, power-hungry servers, eating up to 25 kilowatts every hour.

These servers are also generating tremendous amounts of heat, which needs to be moved away from the equipment if it is to operate smoothly. The cooling adds further costs and draws more energy. According to computer maker Hewlett-Packard, for every kilowatt of energy consumed in processing, a further kilowatt is used for cooling.

The impact of this is heightened by rocketing energy prices. Furthermore, the ability of high-density racks to suck up power actually threatens to outstrip the ability to draw the power from the local electricity grid in some cases.

IT advisory group Gartner estimates that most large enterprise organisations currently spend roughly 5% of their total IT budgets on energy. Within five years, that figure is set to triple.

The environmental impact of this insatiable appetite for power is considerable: A fully-equipped 30,000 square foot data centre (which is a relative minnow by today’s standards) will consume enough electricity in a single year to result in 44,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.

For some, this environmental wrecking has provided an opportunity. For businesses concerned with their own carbon footprint, co-location and managed services providers offer the opportunity to shift some of the burden onto a third party. As Fabio Torlini, marketing director for managed service provider Rackspace says: “If the customer wasn’t utilising our services then they would be responsible for the carbon produced by their servers.”

Rackspace has also teamed up with environmental group, the International Tree Foundation, to offer a carbon neutral service for its environmentally concerned customers. It aims to offset the emissions produced from powering its data centres by planting a tree for every server it runs.

The problems of developing a truly green data centre remain fierce. However, the prevailing view among vendors is that it is an issue that customers are beginning to take seriously.

Richard Barrington, head of corporate affairs and public policy at Sun Microsystems agrees: “A number of our customers – the BPs and the Vodafones – were becoming very particular about their validation of our environmental and green credentials as a part of us doing business with them.”

However, IT leaders should caution against taking promises of carbon neutrality at face value, says Rakesh Kumar, an analyst with advisory group Gartner. He urges businesses to demand a roadmap of plans, and metrics for improving energy efficiency that can be benchmarked. “Otherwise it’s too nebulous,” he says.

Regulatory hazards

To date, environmental computing has been a consideration solely for individual business leaders; legislators have concentrated on higher profile targets, such as airlines and electricity generators. But with IT now consuming 1% of the energy consumed globally, that situation cannot be expected to persist.

The laws, as they exist today, have largely focussed on minimising the spread of heavy metal pollutants and super-greenhouse gases (rather than naturally occurring ones such as carbon dioxide). European Union directives, such as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, are a case in point.

At a global level, the United Nations is attempting to reduce carbon emissions – although the lack of US agreement to the Kyoto protocol has famously undermined progress. Kyoto obliges governments to reduce CO2 emissions, which could encourage more national legislation.

However Kyoto also allows for carbon trading, where countries can buy ‘allowances’ from other less energy-intensive countries. The up-side to this is that it provides a practical, market-based approach to tackling carbon emissions, but it also takes the pressure to take action now off the most polluting countries .

In the long term, says Andrew Jay, of data centre construction company CB Richard Ellis, governments will not be able to ignore energy-hungry industries such as IT. It is only a matter of time before some form of legislation arrives, he adds.

Unbalanced equations

The ‘carbon footprint’ has become the de facto measurement for gauging the environmental impact of business operations. Fundamentally, it provides a guide for how much of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is pumped into the atmosphere as a result of day-to-day activity; the higher the energy use, the larger the carbon footprint.

To counteract the impact of energy consumption, some business leaders have initiated plans to become carbon neutral. This will involve an audit of energy usage to calculate carbon emissions; these can then be ‘offset’ through projects such as reforestation or introducing sustainable energy production.

The bottom-line benefits of reducing energy consumption are relatively easy to fathom given rising energy prices. But as data centre managers attempt to balance the voracious business appetite for computational power, and the headaches introduced with a high density computing environment, are efforts to become carbon neutral a valuable addition to the fight against global warming?

One of the problems is the difficulty in accurately auditing energy use to calculate the carbon footprint. A case in point is chip maker VIA. In 2006, it launched its C7-D processor with the promise that it could form the basis of the “world’s first carbon-free PC”. For every processor sold, the company offered to offset the projected three-year life of the equipment through reforestation projects.

While that is a worthy effort, the true carbon footprint of the chip also includes the emissions produced during manufacturing and shipping, which were left out of the offsetting offer.

Furthermore, some environmentalists argue that reforestation projects do more harm than good. By focussing on the – at best, optimistic – proposal that tree planting can defuse the damage done by emitting greenhouse gases, business leaders can be tempted to ignore a more fundamental and pressing concern: reducing energy consumption.

And efforts to introduce more sustainable energy sources into IT have had limited success. The Greater London Authority (GLA) has introduced the London Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% within the capital by 2015, and by 60% by 2050. With existing commercial and domestic buildings contributing approximately 73% of carbon emissions in London, the GLA is imposing requirements on new developments to make use of some component of renewable energy in order to gain planning provision. Yet when one organisation pointed out that to meet those demands for its new data centre, it would have to build 16 wind turbines, the GLA backed away from its demands.

Elsewhere, technology poster child Google has been at the forefront of green technology initiatives. The company has built new premises in Mountain View, California that make extensive use of solar panelling on its roofs – the largest customer-owned solar electricity system in the world – in an attempt to cut its carbon footprint. Google is expected to save nearly $400,000 per year on its electricity consumption.

However, it is able to maximise that saving by using the solar-generated power to reduce its reliance on peak-priced electricity. For companies, such as those based in the UK, where electricity is charged at flat rates, such savings are not possible and the investment in solar panelling may not be so apparent.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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