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Last Updated: Monday, 24 September 2007, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
Time for the IT crowd to go green
Steven Nunn
Steve Nunn

Despite the many benefits they bring, society's growing dependence on computers is taking its toll on the environment, says Steve Nunn. In this week's Green Room, he calls for a "strategic shift" in mindsets to curb IT's growing impacts.

Office block (Image: AP)
IT departments of most large organisations spend around 5% of their total annual budgets on energy

For most people, using complex technology has become a part of daily life. Yet many people do not seem to understand the green issues that arise from the increase in computing power.

In a world where cutting energy costs and achieving efficiencies are important to both households and companies, this situation has certainly emerged as a priority in boardrooms.

Unsurprisingly, it is the energy consumed by companies and their "data centres" that is causing the bulk of the power consumption.

As IT managers today grapple with trying to deliver value, boost efficiency and reduce costs, they now have to consider their green footprint too.

Consequently, there is a continual quest to identify ways in which these goals can be achieved - a quest which is currently driving the trend towards consolidating, streamlining and simplifying data centres.

Plugging the gap

Of course, in today's business world, data centres have a crucial role to play. Properly run, they provide robust data back-up, as well as ensuring effective disaster recovery and operational resilience.

Few have made the connection between IT efficiency and green compliance

Simplifying these core functions is not easy, but it can be achieved in such a way that major energy savings are delivered simultaneously with the business benefits.

This is an exciting prospect. The concentration of computing hardware in companies' data centres is enormous and, outside of manufacturing plants, these centres account for the bulk of most companies' power consumption. They also generate vast amounts of heat.

Companies are well aware of their corporate and social responsibilities. Being seen to be green plays an essential part in their relationships with customers, suppliers and investors. Yet, so far, few have made the connection between IT efficiency and green compliance.

This needs to change. Green citizenship is a central tenet of companies' duty to behave responsibly. As they plan the consolidation of their data centres, IT managers should be actively selecting replacement technologies that will provide more muscle for less power.


These technologies are available but they are still under-exploited. According to a leading market analysis organisation, the IT departments of most large organisations spend around 5% of their total annual budgets on energy.

Circuit board (Getty Images)
Many firms have failed to wire IT's impact into their green thinking

As computing power per square foot of office space increases, this percentage is set to double or even treble within the next five years.

By investing in "intelligent" power-saving technologies, companies could significantly cut back on this outlay, while doing their bit to save the planet.

As well as investing in this new technology, companies could also achieve significant cost savings by taking a more holistic view of the power supplies on which their businesses depend.

Instead of having engineers and facilities teams working apart from the IT department, closer integration between these functions would help to ensure that energy is not wasted as a result of poor cabling and poor IT cooling.

At the same time, these companies and the hardware vendors that supply them need to be planning ahead. Today's new equipment can soon become redundant, and there is a parallel need to ensure that, when it reaches the end of its lifecycle, it can be recycled as effectively as possible.

The arrival of intelligent and energy-efficient technology is a radical and timely development. Putting it to good use calls for a shift in the strategic mindset of IT departments.

If they can make this shift they will find that they not only meet the interests of shareholders today, but also of future generations for decades to come.

Steve Nunn is global practice leader for Data Centre Technology & Operations at Accenture, a global management consulting and technology services company

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Steven Nunn? Are the environmental impacts of computers being overlooked? Are firms failing to incorporate the growing demand for energy into their green strategies? Or should we focus on green electricity supplies rather than worry about how it is consumed?

My company promotes working from home which would not be possible without all this tech. In doing so, I save having to drive 100ml round trip to work every day which not only makes me more productive (good for the company), but also reduces my CO2 foot print. If more companies allow this working practice, then they would also be promoting a greener image.
Mark, Meath, Ireland

It would help if every time I buy a new desktop computer most of the increased processing power was not used up by Microsoft software. However the power used saves me receiving any paper from the bank, stockbroker and almost all bills. Most letter writing can be done by e-mail and 90% of my shopping can be accomplished without any travel on my part. Deliveries can be made in the most efficient way.
K R Arliss, Toronto Canada

My company operates many data centres across the globe, and we are definately looking at ways to become more greener. As stated already in replies, virtualization is helping. For example we have a 1000m2 data centre in London that used to be full of kit, we now are taking up less than 40% of the space. There is a deffinate cost saving to the company which makes the bean counters happy.
Mark, Meath, Ireland

IT professionals can help combat global warming -by working from home more
Rafi Cohen, Kenton, London

Yes its an issue in the industry but most of our major clients are extremely aware of the issues and infact our business is built on delivering solutions that lower energy usage, and increase recyclability of the hardware, in some cases delivering upto a 60% reduction in fuel bills. Bear in mind that there is one large data centre in Docklands that uses the same amount of electricity a day as a town the size of Rotherham you can see how significant this saving is. The harsh reality is most companies don't really care about their "green credentials" but do about their bottom line, and if in the process of reducing costs their marketing guys can gain cachet with a green message thats great side effect
Kris Hogg, Sheffield

Daniel James from Norwich may find that even if his local supermarket were not open 24 hours a day, the fridges would still be on to keep the food that he buys during the day time fresh and the lights would still be on so that the cleaners could see the dirt that he left during the day and the shelf stackers could see what they were doing. Perhaps a greener alternative to shopping would be to walk to your local corner shop without using any carbon fuel ?
Neil Pritchard, Bangor

Our company has just replaced all of its ageing CRT monitors with TFT flat panels. These provide a clearer, flicker-free display, free up valuable desk space, are easier to handle, and above all, only use a third of the power. Combined with the ability to write IT purchases off against taxable profit, the new kit should effectively pay for itself in 3 - 4 years.
JohnE, Eastleigh, UK

"I can tell you this though, I get very angry when I walk into Tesco's at 3 a.m. and see 2 people buying Pasta Bakes and EVERY single light and Fridge is on to help them support their midnight snack decisions! Daniel James, Norwich UK" Daniel - what method other than fridges should Tesco use to keep their food cold at night? How should the night staff negotiate the aisles whilst re-stocking? These aren't potential energy saving solutions. Companies encouraging employees to turn off pc equipment when not in use is - how many of us work in offices where the printers & pc monitors are left on all night?
Phil, mansfield

Computers are using less and less energy, you just have to look at the technology in new Laptops to see that power consumption is down and efficiency is up, Servers on Networks can now handle more data and so less servers are needed, again reducing the amount of power needed and increasing efficiency, you can decrease the amount of power being used even more by using remote desktops, you can even get 'green' PC's, the real problem is that although we are making computers more efficient and thus better for the enviroment there are just more computers and this unfortunately tends to outweigh the improvements being made to make computer systems greener!
Matt, Rochester, UK

It's true, energy consumption by computers is completely overlooked by nearly all companies. I work for a large multinational as a web editor. There simply isnt the time to worry about the 'background' energy use. It's all about the efficiency of the end product, the part the investors and stakeholders will see. I know I use my computer for nearly 8 and a half hours a day but I have to, my job as a web editor hardly uses pen and paper. Its a sad truth, my ability to write is suffering which can easily reflect our dependance on computers. This is the problem. Computer systems are now used so that information can be accessed and edited on a central copy, quite clearly this is a bigger priority to the Directors than the effect it is having on the environment. To try and make changes in this way could result in job loss if efficiency of business is lost.
Thomas Jarvis, Derbyshire

Each new generation of processors tends to be more powerful, use less energy and run cooler than its predecessors. So far, so good. However it may be the growth in demand outstrips this. 'Laptop' processors tend to be much better at adapting energy use to demand than the 'desktop' processors used in datacentres, but if a centre is constantly used the savings may be small. Steve Nunn just doesn't give nearly enough detail to let us judge whether his views are realistic or simply 'Hot air'
Hugh Conkey, Stonehaven

Chris, Reading. Just because Steven doesn't mention the technologies doesn't mean they are not there. The new AMD Quad-Core gives double the processing power for the same energy outlay as their current dual core, so if I switch all my processing to the quad I have half the energy usage for the same processing power. Virtualisation technologies allow us to run several virtual servers from a single physical one, very easily lowering both hardware and energy needs. Blade servers and increased efficiency cooling and power technologies gives us further improvements. The biggest benefit of these technologies is they all work together, so if I were to change my 100 legacy servers for 10 AMD Quad-Core blade servers with virtualisation and up-to-date cooling and power management, I would probably get the same (or more) processing power for a fraction of the energy usage those 100 would have used.
Geoff, Leeds

I think to suggest the impact is just a sympton of capitalism and therefore unstoppable is blinkered. The simple fact is there are many ways in which the impact of business on the environment can be limited without stiffling the growth of the business. For any organisation to simple roll over and submit that if we want growth it will come at the expense of the environment is unacceptable. Business must seek to employ the services of environmentally aware or accredited IT consultants who pledge to deploy greener services. This will stimulate the green IT market and will see a shift in balance of power. Market forces and a little legislation and/or tax relief are the best way to divert the flow of the river.
Andy, Liverpool, UK

I'm so sick of the pointless obsession with trying to use less electricity to 'Save the planet' as every man and his dog trys to jump on the political green bandwagon. Slight gains in efficiency here and there aren't going to make a noticeable difference to the carbon usage on a global scale. We should be investing massive amounts in coming up with sustainable green ways to generate electricity, not telling everyone to use their computers less!
Richard Dunn, Hull, East Yorkshire

I am not aware of any power saving devices that I can use in the work place. I can tell you this though, I get very angry when I walk into Tesco's at 3 a.m. and see 2 people buying Pasta Bakes and EVERY single light and Fridge is on to help them support their midnight snack decisions!
Daniel James, Norwich UK

If Steven Walker can't bear living in a capitalist society, he could always try somewhere like North Korea; no chance of being able to run a profitable business there. Or of doing anything so outrageous as letting people buy more stuff. Everything is planned and everyone receives only what the system permits. And what is permitted, mostly, is destitution and starvation.
Jon Anderson, Farnham

Virtualisation technology such as VMWare provides an effective way to consolidate server hardware and reduce power consumption and cooling requirements. Whilst this proven technology exists many companies are still reluctant to adopt it to run business critical production systems.
Simon Norman, London

This is a valid article and many businesses are considering the impact on the environement they have. From a hosting and datacentre perspective, Rackspace is a leader in this area, with a new tree planted for every server sold and also their new datacentre will be powered from energy derived from renewable sources. While there is more work to be done, this is definitely a step in the right direction.
Philip Smith, London

"Yet, so far, few have made the connection between IT efficiency and green compliance." Really? I would like to see your sources for that. Server space, power availability and cooling costs are driving data managers to move to low footprint, low power and therefore low-cooling hardware.
James Jackson, Bristol

Although computers consume power, many functions provided by them reduce energy consumption in other areas. For example, we run 4 data centres with servers running 24/7. However, the results produced by these computers optimise factory and warehouse stocks and considerably reduce traffic pollution.
Mark Charles, Mesnil Amand, France

One of the simplest methods to save energy is to recycle some of the enormous amount of waste heat generated by the equipment, to heat office space and hot water. Since the cooling systems are already in place to transport the heat away from the equipment, it is a simple matter to install an extra heat pump to reclaim the energy.
Grahame, St. Albans

Steve Nunn misses one very obvious way in which IT professionals can help combat global warming - by working from home more. I work in London as a software development consultant, and I am often dismayed at how most IT departments strongly discourage programmers and support staff from working from home. We are the ideal industry to lead by example, and we are failing in that respect. Shame on us!
Jason Gorman, London, UK

Why does Steve Nunn feel the need to "call" for a strategic shift regarding data centre power, but cite precisely zero of the many technologies which already address the problem? Virtualisation is considered a saviour in this area by allowing many idle but power-hungry servers to be consolidated, while simultaneously opening up whole areas of flexibility for IT departments. 15 percent of new server shipments will undergo virtualization in 2010, up from 5 percent in 2005 according to IDC. Virtualisation is widely accepted as the future of data centre architecture, but this article fails to mention it. IT departments cite power restrictions as major barriers to expansion in data centres, as evidenced by numerous surveys this year and last, and chip companies in response (per their websites) are competing over "performance per watt" and combining as many CPUs as possible into single low-power chips. There are evidently economic incentives for all companies to go green, but this article ignores them. With so much stark evidence indicating that perhaps a strategic shift has already begun it's difficult to see much value in an article as vague as this. The article seems to be jumping on the "green" bandwagon of headline-grabbing titles rather than deliver any useful insight into an area already undergoing significant change. One cannot call for change without understanding the current situation.
Niall, London, UK

The energy consumed by computers is only one facet to the unfolding environmental catastrophe. Lets not forget the mountain of e-waste spewed out by corporations in the quest for a profit!
John McLean, London

Companies are already perfectly aware how much their computer systems cost to run. They've been paying the large electricity and cooling bills for decades. Yes when buying new kit the efficiency of the system is considered. MIPS per Watt is a figure which is looked closely at when choosing a platform. The problem is that demand for processing power is increasing far faster than the technologies are becoming efficient. Someone develops a chip which is 1000 MIPS per Watt instead of 500. Well, we fill the machine rooms with twice as many of the new CPUs. Power/Air Conditioning has been the limiting factor in date centres for years now, so this is not news.
Colin Smith MBCS, Glasgow, UK

Nice one Steve... But it would've helped if you had indicated what some of the technologies are. Primary such as predictive demand storage. Secondary like recycling the heat given off. Future primary such as low-consumption processors and peripherals. A bit off topic perhaps, but although you can't shut down a data centre when the staff go home, but it's amazing the number of companies that require employees NOT to turn off desktop PCs and monitors.
Ian Sedwell, Weymouth, UK

If power saving technologies are truly cost-effective then corporations will adopt them on their own initiative without the need for government carrots or sticks. It doesn't take a psychic to see what the author will tout next: calls for higher excise taxes on power and some kind of energey efficiency credit trading scheme. Neither will actually reduce power consumption but they will make it more expensive and the corporations will then pass those costs on to us, their customers.
Scott W, Port Orchard USA

What rubbish. While there are some technologies I am aware of which might reduce the energy spent on computing, this guy mentions nothing, no technology whatever. Anyone can wake up one day and state, this industry must use less power. What is his point with this article?
John Driscoll, London, UK

Aside from the problems of cooling the hardware - which lies in my opinion mainly from poorly designed PSU's, the layout of the mainboard needs to be drastically changed including all the components needed for lower power consumption. Businesses need to work out how much computing power they really need and whether their servers should really be upgraded to the more power hungry (and often hotter yet more productive) blade servers. They should also be looking into Virtualisation Software which can effectively turn on and off processors according to their needs. If you want to go totally green, then the buildings that house data centers should be completely re-designed for non-human use. The tower block should be covered completely with solar panels and ventilation shafts engineered in such a manner to pull in air from around the building to help cool the servers. Just for fun stick a windmill on top ;)
Mo Khera, Warsaw, Poland

Big chip manufacturers have been reducing power consumtion in a big way during the last couple of years, namely with 65nm and lower fabrication processes which reduce peak wattage from sometimes over 125w, to 65w. This will continue to improve, and means every power supply can be smaller and more efficient causing a small dominoe effect if you will. The amount of cooling that comms/server room air-handling/conditioning units have to provide will reduce too, in many cases this alone could save thousands in electricity.
Jon T, Dorset, UK

One of the first articles i've seen on the topic. I concur of course, and in recognition I shall be turning off all of my company's servers for a week to make the point. Whilst i go on holiday.
Richard, London

He's right - it's a big, and increasing, problem. Web servers are left on 24 hours a day, and they often need special cool rooms so that they don't overheat. A few years ago, before the Web really took off, hardly any companies had them. Now they all do, so the impact on the planet is massive. We're all to blame in some way though. We have mobile phones, PDAs, laptops, electric toothbrushes - all these gadgets require charging up. Do we need them all? Perhaps not...
Graham Southorn, Bath

Thing is, companies can only be as green as their suppliers of their IT kit and the limits of technologies out there such as virtualisation. Granted CPU chips have become a lot 'greener' in the last few years, but multiple hard drives spinning 24/7 at 7200-15000 rpm draws a lot of power and until someone figures out a way to store that data effectively, I'm afraid data centres are going to suck a lot of power... although not as much collectively as home computers I might add...
Dave Waters, Bristol, UK

Chris from Reading is simplifying things when he says more computing power uses more electricity. We know that in our organisation that if we replaced our blade servers with more modern blades, we would have more powerful processors. We would also save 1 kilowatt (an electric bar fire) per chassis in electric consumption plus the additional cooling that would not be required. Despite these benefits, getting the capital to purchase the replacements can still be difficult.
Scott Andrews, Colwyn Bay, United Kingdom

So by which magical technological panacea can one save on emissions from a data center whilst coping with an increasing demand in processing power, driven by the consumers themselves? Let us take the case of the Northern Rock online failure, on one hand we see an article on the BBC site suggesting the company should have more resources on standby ready to kick in at a moments notice to pick up the demand, whilst on the other hand we have this article criticising an increase in computing power. Whilst companies are taking steps to reduce the number of servers in data centres by use of virtualization technologies , required redundancy will still entail a high power/cooling over head for the time being.
Rob, Redhill, Surrey

Last week the European Court confirmed a 497 million euro fine against Microsoft for abuse of monopoly. One of the ways in which they have abused their monopoly has been to create a climate in which people have a choice of either having to upgrade their computers more frequently than is necessary or being unable to exchange files with anybody else. In my view these newer, faster computers have all sorts of gimmicks that add very little to their usability, but add lots to Bill Gates' pocket and also cause caused umpteen otherwise serviceable computers to be loaded into landfill sites. Shame on George Bush for having dropped the United States case again Microsoft during the early years of his presidency.
Martin Vlietstra, Fleet, United Kingdom

Very good. Why hasn't Steve Nunn made reference to any of these super new technologies which are going to reduce the power consumption of data centres? Is it because he doesn't understand what they are and assumes there must be some magic bullet out there, or is it simply because such things don't exist? Extra computing power costs more in both energy and cooling requirements. While technology becomes more power efficient, there is nothing which will drastically reduce the power requirement of a data centre.
Chris, Reading

This article present rather confused motivations for implementing the recommended actions - on the one hand, a simple economic argument is presented: saving electricity saves money; but this straightforward point is then muddled and clouded by talk of "companies' duty to behave responsibly". If it saves money, (i) why aren't companies doing it already? and (ii) why confused matters with the eco-warrier bit?
Tim, Oxford, Uk

The energy consumption of the computers is irrelevant; you run a business to make a profit, you use the profit to support more people; who in turn buy more stuff, and so in turn the business makes more money, and so it spirals upwards out of control. More, More More, and the only place that "more" can come from is ripping up the planet. We've had all the planet can cope with; we've run out of stuff and that's that. The whole problem is running the business to end up with more human activity than you started with. That is the real problem. Computer power is only a symptom - like blaming the drag of the rudder on the ship, when our real problem is the course set by the captain.
Steven Walker, Penzance UK

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