Moore's Law is anti-sustainability

The tech sector is laser-focused on driving upgrades. For decades the sector has rewarded shareholders with high growth, thanks to the prophecy that every 18 months to two years, computing doubles for the same price. In other words, an application can run twice as fast on the latest hardware. An IT buyer gets twice as much for the same amount of money.

But new hardware is no longer flowing out of manufacturing plants. Car-makers are quoting several months on delivery times for new cars, due to semiconductor supply issues. And in October Bloomberg reported that Apple would be cutting production of the iPhone 13, due to semiconductor shortages.

During its latest earnings call, CEO Tim Cook estimated that the crisis in semiconductor supply had a $6 billion revenue impact. This, according to Reuters, has propelled Microsoft ahead of Apple, as the world’s most valuable company.

Why upgrades are bad news

Do we need the latest and greatest hardware? In a professional context, there is no reason why well-specified hardware should no longer be useful several years after its initial deployment. Why has Google extended the useful life of its datacentre servers from three to four years? By doing this, it has delivered a $1.7bn revenue boost in just nine months. “The big manufacturers depend on you buying new equipment every two years. It is not sustainable,” says Alex Bardell, chair of the BCS Green IT Specialist Group.

Looking at desktop computing, IT chiefs really need to ask themselves whether a laptop does indeed only have a two to three year useful life. That is what the industry wants people to believe. But for those people who use web applications and desktop productivity tools – is it really necessary to have the highest spec device? It may be “nice to have” and “makes our company look the business” because staff have flashy laptops and smartphones. Unless there is a direct and measurable business outcome, such purchases are vanity. And when it comes to saving the planet, vanity does not have a seat at the table. Would you really accept the shiny new device if you fully considered the environmental impact?

Software-defined should mean less reliance on hardware, not an opportunity for a hardware manufacturer to make a quick sale. There is a growing IT asset disposal sector, but recycling needs to be linked to procurement, finance and IT asset management to improve sustainability.

Going back to Moore’s Law, how often do chips fail? The industry should encourage reuse. This may help overcome the semiconductor crisis.

One thing the industry may well argue is that new semiconductors are more efficient. But Thermal Design Power is no longer the max power of a chip. In fact the TDP of modern processors appears to be going up. A processor can also draw more power for short periods of time and motherboards can also make the processor run in “turbo” mode”, which means it draws more power. More power helps chipmakers and motherboard manufacturers claim better performance than rivals.

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