IT switches on to green at last

As business devours ever more energy, innovative ways of raising power efficiency usher in a new era in environment-friendly information processing.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Data-hosting centres, clever utilisation and kit refurbishment can cut your carbon footprint, reveals Rhymer Rigby.

Business IT hits the headlines for all sorts of reasons, but they're usually exciting stories about hapless employees leaving 200,000 credit-card records on a laptop in a cab. Sure, there have been grumbles about the armies of PCs being left on overnight (along with TVs, DVD players, stereos and the rest of the world on standby), but these have been minor. Recently, though, IT's green credentials - or lack of them - have been making the headlines.

The big surprise is that this didn't come sooner. A recent report by US IT research firm Gartner predicted that power consumption - currently about 10% of IT budget - will rise to 50% in the next few years.

It also revealed that the IT industry has a carbon footprint the size of the airline industry - and when was the last time you saw a protest camp outside PC World?

There have been other factors too. WEEE, the EU directive that makes European producers and importers of electrical goods responsible for their eventual disposal, came into force on 1 July. And there have been eye-catching campaigns such as Greenpeace's annual ranking of IT suppliers. This is always good for a laugh, as Apple, the bien pensant computer of choice, usually comes bottom, whereas unlovely workaday brands like Dell generally fare pretty well.

Add to all this the growing momentum of the great green bandwagon and the fact that everyone has a statement about their carbon neutrality somewhere, and it's no wonder that IT is coming under pressure. As Virgin's corporate affairs and brand strategy director Will Whitehorn says, having green IT is really just ensuring that IT is in line with the rest of the corporate strategy, whether it's in-house or outsourced.

For IT departments looking to green up their acts, there are keys areas to consider. The first is efficiency (mainly of data-centres, but also elsewhere), the second is power supply, and the third is recycling.

In data-centres, explains Clive Longbottom, service manager at IT business analysts Quocirca, 'one big issue is that of old equipment, which tends to be power-hungry'. Companies, he says, worry about having to go green immediately and replace everything in one fell swoop, but as old equipment fails or becomes redundant it can easily be replaced with new equipment, which is far more efficient. And this is also true outside the data-centre: modern desktops will be greener than those that are five years old.

The second issue for data-centre efficiency, adds Longbottom, is the question of utilisation: according to the Gartner report, most systems use 10% or less of their capacity. To redress this, he advises looking at service-orientated architectures, clusters, grid computing, and so on. 'If you can go from 10% utilisation to 50%,' he says, 'it's one hell of a saving, and it's not just power - it's real estate, the licensing of operating systems and so on. Plus, of course, the number of people you need to administer the centre.'

In fact, for some companies the best solution might be to have their data-centre hosted by someone else. Virgin Games has adopted this solution. Chief executive Simon Burridge says that by using San Jose-based Pillar Data Systems to host its servers, 'we get higher utilisation - typically 85%. It's implementing VMware, which allows us to use multi-windows servers on a single server. Of course, it's less hardware and less electricity too, so being green is just good business.'

Judy Grove of Specialist Computing Centres points out that data-centres can be much smaller, and that there have been great advances in terms of heat production and power consumption. 'We recently did work for a bank that resulted in a 50% reduction in the data-centre's power demand.'

This brings us neatly to the next point - power consumption. Some specialist data-centres are choosing to boost their green credentials by buying zero-carbon electricity. For big industrials, there's a further intriguing possibility in this area: supplying your own power. Although this solution may be limited to companies in sectors such as metals smelting, it's pretty green, as about a third of power is lost in transmission.

Move on to recycling and, says Grove, you have the question of redundant kit. There's an opportunity here for a solution that makes both green and business sense. As computing power in organisations has flowed back from the desktop to data-centres, it has become easier to refurbish old PCs, which are now being used as terminals rather than standalones. 'Typically, a new PC costs £300, whereas you can refurbish one for £20,' she adds.

Recycling is an interesting area, as WEEE effectively answers it for new equipment. Although some complain about the costs that the directive imposes, in some ways it's a blessing in disguise. Until its advent, all sorts of things happened to old equipment - at best it might be donated to schools and at worst it might simply be left outside in the hope that someone will take it away. Some companies keep warehouses full of stuff while they seek a cost-effective way to dispose of it.

Further down the IT chain there's printers. In a recent Lexmark study of 1,400 SMEs, 30% of respondents said they had never carried out a printing review, and 6% of UK businesses do not know if they have ever taken action to reduce printing costs. Over half report that their company prints more today than it did two years ago. Yet printing is an easy green win. Cut down on the number of personal printers and people print fewer documents. If you insist they use both sides of the sheet, you will almost halve your paper consumption - and bill. And if you're really keen, you can even reduce the font size: taking a 12-point type down to a still-legible 10pt gets an extra 30% of words on a full page.

Burridge at Virgin Games notes that good intentions, especially in this area, can often fall by the wayside as people take up their bad old habits again. 'It's all very well having a recycling programme, but the key to keeping it going is eternal vigilance. So we have a campaign called "Give a monkey's", where we bang the drum every week to remind people.'

IT can be a powerful green enabler, ranging from the macro (video-conferencing is far greener than flying) to the micro (virtual noticeboards rather than paper-wasting real ones). While the paperless office idea has, for the most part, become a joke, it can happen if you really want it to.

The Hyde Group, which provides affordable housing and employs 1,200 people, has made this work. For reasons as varied as sustainability, efficiency and the need for managers to access data remotely, it has put most of its admin material online - from applicants' CVs to mileage claims and appraisal forms. Not only does it save 95,000 sheets of paper a year, it saves money and improves the morale of those who would otherwise have to input reams of data.

Looking even further down the IT chain, says Longbottom, firms may wish to consider phones and mobiles. If you save a few watts per user across thousands of users, it soon adds up. Some years ago Ryanair was pilloried for not allowing employees to charge phones at work; this was held up as an example of Michael O'Leary's legendary tightfistedness. Now, it sounds like a good green initiative.

- Smartbunker

A data centre that's a Cooler shade of green

Smartbunker is part of Centrinet, a managed network and data-hosting business that has two claims to distinction. One is that it's very green - it claims to be the UK's first managed data-centre committed to being zero-carbon. And the other is that it is very secure: it's buried in a 30,000 sq ft former cold-war bunker in Lincolnshire.

Smartbunker MD and Centrinet co-founder Kelly Smith (right) identifies two key aspects to his company's green computing. One is that the data centre is very new and was set up using exclusively IBM blade servers. While conventional servers are often effectively PCs in their own right, blade servers are pared down and have as many components as possible removed in the name of efficiency, in terms of both cost and power consumption. 'This,' says Smith, 'gives us a huge power-saving per unit - around 60% compared to a normal server.'

Smartbunker's second eco tick comes from the electricity it uses. The power is supplied by Ecotricity, the UK's first and largest wind-power company. Smith is keen to point out here that there is a big difference between being zero-carbon (wind farms generate no CO2 other than that used to build the turbines) and carbon-neutral, which is what allows the middle classes to fly without troubling their conscience.

The bunker's final green credential comes from its unusual situation. 'Because we're totally underground,' explains Smith, 'we have a constant year-round temperature.' As anyone who has sat next to a noisy desktop PC in warm weather will know, computers give off a great deal of heat and in a server room all this has to be 'rejected' in order to prevent the room from becoming a sauna.

Obviously, the ambient temperature in a normal building varies throughout the year, depending on the outside temperature and the solar gain caused by sunlight. Keeping servers cool on hot, sunny days uses a lot of electricity. Deep in the bunker, though, it's a constant cool, green 12 degsC all year round.

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