IT and sustainability: The 21st century paradox?

This is a guest post by Han Chon, managing director for ASEAN at Nutanix

There has been much discussion around how technology can be used to accelerate sustainability efforts, from green IT to automated and digitised systems, and the integration of new data sets in emissions reduction. What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that many of these technologies, and the energy and infrastructure they require, can actually expand a company’s carbon footprint rather than reduce it. This begs the question: Is technology hindering climate change more than it is helping it?

Across the Asia-Pacific, there is a stronger impetus than ever for companies to ‘go green’ and embrace sustainability across their organisations. Many markets across the region now require publicly listed companies to disclose climate reporting, and there is increased investor scrutiny around companies’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments. However, the pitfall that many businesses have fallen into is to hop on the green bandwagon, simply to tick a corporate social responsibility checkbox — without meaningfully engaging with how sustainability can be integrated in their organisation’s operations, processes, and overall DNA.

The IT industry is no exception. Having waxed lyrical about the positive impact that technology can have in accelerating climate change efforts and preventing the emission of more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), technology companies have done little to address these challenges. The sector’s notoriously resource-intensive nature, particularly where chip-making and datacentres are concerned, continues to be a cause of concern, as well. Currently, the information and computing technology sector is expected to account for nearly 20% of global energy demand by 2030, up from 3% today.

The truth is that while our need to reduce emissions has never been greater, our need for energy has never been higher either. With the digital economy at an all-time boom, and every business now seeking to become a digital enterprise, there is simply no escaping our increasing need for more computing power. This demand is only expected to rise in the years ahead, hastened by rapid digitalisation and wider adoption of technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and blockchain.

So, if there is no wriggling out of technology’s all-encompassing grasp, how can we find a more sustainable way around the issue? The way forward could be to adopt a more holistic approach that prioritises both technology and sustainability considerations, without compromising the business bottom line.

Datacentre evolution

Most industry conversations thus far have focused, and perhaps disproportionately so, on the exhaustive environmental impact of data centres. But recent studies have indicated that newer datacentres, developed with sustainable technologies and fuelled by renewable energy sources, can reduce overall rates of energy consumption and emissions without sacrificing the need for increased computing capacity.

These newer datacentres can deliver six times more computing output, while consuming energy at a marginal increase of 6%. Major cloud computing players like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft have already been fast adopters, while others like Google Cloud are launching solutions that provide businesses with data-driven insight into their carbon footprint, alongside recommendations and deployable tools to reduce their carbon emissions.

Leaving legacy behind

However, datacentres present just one part of the equation. As technologies evolve and more businesses pivot to hybrid and multicloud models to meet their increasing need for operational agility, many are grappling with the complexities and fallout of managing various cloud architectures across multiple platforms, which often comprise siloed, legacy components.

This is troubling for several reasons. Traditional IT infrastructure is composed of three primary layers — server, storage, and network — which are energy-intensive operations that require a significant amount of hardware and cooling to maintain.

The hefty environmental footprint that many legacy IT systems create has earned them the notorious label of ‘gas guzzlers’ in the industry, making them increasingly costly and laborious to upkeep as well. At the same time, these legacy systems often no longer serve the needs of companies as they look to scale their operational agility, reduce total cost of ownership, and increase returns on their technology investments.

Modern IT environments, such as those powered by hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), collapse traditional three-tier setups into a single, consolidated layer within an organisation’s technology stack. This simplifies and streamlines organisations’ journeys to the cloud, and enables them to tap on public, private and hybrid cloud services more easily. At the same time, it significantly reduces the energy and hardware required to run traditional datacentres, directly lowering businesses’ energy consumption, carbon emissions, and operating costs.

For instance, Indonesia’s Bank BPD Bali successfully leveraged cloud to drive increased IT efficiency — which meant it could significantly reduce its datacentre footprint by approximately 70%, reduce utilities needed for power and cooling, and even gain operational cost savings of up to 80%.

Similarly, Australian manufacturer Nature’s Organics overhauled its energy-hungry and power-lacking IT infrastructure to better manage resource and energy consumption and drive greater efficiencies across its eco-friendly manufacturing operations. In doing so, the company was able to reduce its IT-related energy consumption and environmental footprint by approximately 55%.

Technology and sustainability: Working in tandem

While there is no denying that today’s technologies demand greater computing power and energy than before, they could also be one of the greatest forces for good in the fight against climate change. In fact, cloud has already proven instrumental in enabling companies to track and reduce their carbon emissions and footprint, and run their operations sustainably and efficiently, with a significant benefit to the business bottom line — a triple win for businesses, with neither the enterprise nor environment sacrificed.

So, is technology more a hindrance or help to the climate movement? Evidence suggests that the latter leans true. But it all hinges on whether businesses continue to leverage IT innovatively, and responsibly. However, one thing is for sure: the world would be nowhere closer to meeting its sustainability targets if we did not harness the power of technology.

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