computer equipment

Green IT enters new phase

Five years ago the concept of 'green IT' was just a warm aisle whisper - now it is integral to shaping the future of enterprise computing.

A lot of data has flowed under the bridge - and across it - since green IT started to find its way onto the green enterprise agenda; IT professionals can allow themselves a plaudit or two for showing leadership here, because it is through the 'greening' of the IT function that most organisational carbon management programmes entered corporate consciousness.

At a time when the remit of the IT function itself was being undermined by executive forces alleging that IT was neither flexible nor amenable to the needs of 'the business', the environmentalist debate gave IT heads a platform to re-assert their status in the management hierarchy. It also restored some of the political clout IT formerly enjoyed: it was re-empowered to drive through changes.

In regard to IT operations, the green programme started comparatively modestly. Five years ago the subtleties of how online banking, say, or the Internet in general, might be contributing to climate change was not well understood; indeed, the prevailing impression was that Internet use was a force for good, as it meant people weren't driving their cars to the bank.

Some issues have remained constant. Energy efficiency through power saving has always been a cornerstone contention. As memories of the dot-com bust faded and a thriving economy turned data centres into profit centres, these formerly anonymous grey facilities became the subject of greater scrutiny.

It soon became obvious that data centres could be operated more efficiently. Delegates to early green IT conferences were told to look out for legacy hardware that was not doing anything useful, but still whirring away forgotten in the corner; the same went for any old kit that had been decommissioned, but not switched off.

Operating environment temperatures were much discussed: did a roomful of servers need to be chilled-down quite as much as their manufacturers claimed they did? Some data centre engineers started to run servers in hotter surroundings - just a few degrees - invalidating warranties, perhaps, but saving the energy consumed by cooling and ventilation units.

Then there was the vexed question of user 'behaviours', such as encouraging users to switch off their PCs and monitors at the end of the day. This should have been a straightforward habit change that would help cut energy waste; but it turned out to be a rather prickly undertaking. Gentle enforcement revealed to IT staff a range of misconceptions, prejudices, quirks and downright wacky beliefs on the part of their colleagues about shutting down their computers, which sometimes verged on the realms of esoteric worship.

Such anecdotage has become stuff of legend. Some eco-refuseniks worried that their PC's on/off switch would wear out; others left their monitors ever on to warm their desk plants; many just couldn't be bothered to click 'shut down' before taking-off early for the day. Then there were the carbon footprint autodidacts who queried the precepts on which policies were based and sniffed that PCs consume more power being started-up and shut down than is lost by being left in standby mode.

Cussed souls simply deigned not to comply with energy-saving directives out of sheer bloody mindedness. As with information security policies, the IT department once again found itself cast as rule enforcer, and was not comfortable with the role. How things have changed: presentations at recent green IT events like the Green Enterprise World Forum at the start of this month proved that the change impetus now comes from rank-and-file users.

Between 2005 and 2007, 'green IT' industry seminars and conferences were frequent and welcome, and other industry events soon introduced a green streak. The green IT challenge was picked up by the specialist media, and got mentioned on Radio 4's 'The Today Programme'. Board members started to see that adopting green IT policies did not necessarily align their corporate brand with radical political movements like The Green Party or with 'eco- warriors' indeed, there was money to be saved in the form of lower energy bills and having 'green cred' was a corporate social responsibility must-have.

So many executive teams approved the implementation of green IT initiatives and deemed greenness a desirable attribute for their suppliers - causing IT vendors and service providers to beef-up their commitment to selling more environmentally-sound technology. Big hitters like Fujitsu and IBM developed innovative technologies that were predicated on energy efficiency: low-energy laptop displays and self-cooling processors are two notable examples. Back in the data centre, other technologies such as virtualisation and thin-client promised to enable organisations to reduce their PC and server estates.

Then came the financial fecklessness of autumn 2008: for months the green imperative became quietly sidelined. The financial sector is a huge procurer of IT products, and the uncertainty that hung over it quashed purchasing plans in lieu of lost budgets and possible mergers and acquisitions. Institutions hit by the 'credit crunch' found that having a sound reputation for environmentally-informed IT is of little use when assets are worth diddly-squat.

Green futures

The economy is looking (a bit) healthier now, and the green IT 'agenda' has moved on since 2005. The CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme legislation has introduced a legal motivation for organisations to review their energy usage and take steps to implement policies and procedures that make carbon control intrinsic to the articles of their governance. However, as the recent Green Enterprise World Forum showed, the IT industry has passed beyond the awareness phase and must now concentrate its talents on shaping the future of green IT.

Measurement and metrics remain major issues. Although the means for measuring energy usage beyond the figure of total units expended on the electricity bill are so way off, it is likely that manufacturers of IT equipment will come under pressure to state - as a condition of sale - how much power their products consume. Another help is the emergence of power management tools, such as Nlyte's DCIM, Sparxent's Verismic, and Optima's Energy Software. Such products help green-minded IT departments capture the evidence they need to ensure that IT infrastructures are efficiently configured, and also to inform new behaviour-changing practices.

The pursuit of green IT is perforce subject also to changes in working practices. The gradual but steady trend toward the so-called mobile enterprise is going to have important repercussions on the way IT is provisioned to business users - and on the way it consumes energy. With mobile devices enabling large percentages of the workforce to work away from an office base, the requirement to provision multiple desktops (or docking stations), each with a network connection and power source, will become less crucial; and printer needs will decrease.

The dispersal of 20-30 per cent of a typical personnel headcount could have a beneficial effect on energy usage, as the remote staff recharge their laptops and smartphones from hotel power-points and connect to the enterprise network via free public Wi-Fi. 

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