Defining and delivering green IT: a manager's guide

You cannot measure energy consumption unless one is clear about precisely what one is measuring. On one level all IT is "green" because, it saves energy...

You cannot measure energy consumption unless one is clear about precisely what one is measuring. On one level all IT is "green" because, it saves energy in another form, writes Dai Davis, Partner at law firm Brooke North.

Consider, for example, that instead of using your car to drive to a bank to move money between bank accounts, instead you can interact with the bank electronically. No matter how much electricity is used to power the bank's computers or your computer at home, you are saving energy compared with the car journey.

So, computers can be said to be environmentally friendly on one level, because they enable home working in a way which has not been possible hitherto.

Most green computing strategies consider efficiency of hardware. It is extremely rare to consider coding efficiencies. Yet if IT software were written from an efficiency perspective, that could also save considerable amounts of processing power.

Computers use considerable amounts of energy and mineral wealth in their manufacture. They require ten times their weight of irreplaceable resources in their manufacture. Further, for each kilogramme of computer produced, some 22kg of chemical and 1,500kg of water is needed.

Regretfully, many computers become obsolete in short periods of time. If use can be made of computers afterwards, for example, by "donating" them to charity projects around the world, a significant green saving can be made. In addition, there is packaging waste to take into account. Other factors include the location of the manufacturing site and how far the workers need to travel to reach that site.

Environmental and legislative drivers

It is important to understand why you are trying to be seen to be "green". It may be that you have an altruistic driver. More likely, it is through some external requirement to be seen to be green perhaps by your shareholders, customers or other stakeholders. Volvo, for example, is very keen on being seen to be green. One way it ensures that it is green is by requiring its own suppliers to be green. Many companies produce an annual environmental report for their shareholders and therefore need to find value to include in that report each year.

There are also statutory drivers. However, these are haphazard to say the least. The so-called WEEE Directive, for example, is targeted at producers of waste. Other legislation such as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) is likewise directed at manufacturers.

Perhaps the most well-known legislative driver is that of carbon trading but that only applies to 12,000 emission sources from energy intensive processes such as power generation. It is not a holistic scheme by any means. In some circumstances, corporate statements may be required.

An example of how this has been done is included in Section 85 of the Climate Change Act 2008. Most of this Act imposes obligations on future governments. However, since no Parliament can bind a future Parliament, its future importance must be regarded as, at best, debateable. Similarly, the legislation does not actually impose any new obligations on companies about reporting their greenhouse gas emissions.

However, Section 85 does allow the Secretary of State should he so choose, to make regulations requiring companies to include information about greenhouse gas emissions within their annual report. If this is not done by 6 April 2012, the Secretary of State must explain to Parliament why no such regulations have been made.

Service provision in green computing

Having determined "why" you are going green and what you are aiming to achieve, you can next consider how you are going to measure your "greenness". Most people start from power consumption. Indeed, power consumption is important since it has been estimated that up to 2% of power in the United States is used to power computers; some 1% of power worldwide.

As has already been stated, however, most power consumption strategies have been aimed at maximising the efficiency of the hardware rather than looking at the underlying software code. Most importantly, if waste heat can be minimised then that is seen as reducing the environmental unfriendliness of computers. However, that is only a small part of the day to day waste produced from computing.

Other aspects include where, for example, the data centre which hosts the computer servers is located in the first place. There are a number of competing factors in this regard:-

• It is not likely that the data centre will be next to the power source such as a hydro-electric dam, since staff are unlikely to be located nearby. Power loss through transmission from the generation source to the data centre is a significant factor. A further problem is that if staff need to travel to the location of the data centre that is, in itself, energy inefficient.

• Conversely, if the data centre is in a population centre, this will reduce the need for travel time by staff. This will, therefore, be seen as being environmentally friendly. However, most businesses do not measure greenness based upon the travel incurred by staff commuting to and from work.

• Further, there are competing security issues regarding data centres in population centres. On the one hand if the data centre is in a population centre, the data centre is more visible, which may enhance security, and security employees will be easier to find and employ. Conversely, more people may be aware of the location of the data centre. Furthermore, there are more burglaries in population centres than outside of population centres. Usually it is perceived as better to put data centres away from population centres from a security perspective.

• One undoubted advantage of having a data centre in a population centre is that it is possible to utilise the waste heat in combined power and heat schemes. However, in practice, this is very rarely done.

Effective contract terms

Once you know what attributes one is measuring from a "green" perspective it is possible to measure those attributes in a contract. For example, if the only thing that is of concern is the actual raw power used in a data centre, this is relatively easy to measure. Once one starts including the location of the data centre, one would need also to consider matters such as transmission power losses and the efficiency or otherwise of employees travelling to the data centre. This then makes any efficiency measure much harder to calculate and therefore harder to reflect in any contract.

If all that is of concern in a contract is carbon neutrality, this is merely a cost issue. Any amount of carbon off-setting can be undertaken by a contracting party merely by "buying" the relevant carbon off-set.

It is important to ensure that one looks at total lifecycle issues. For example, a contract may require that a supplier supplies only energy efficient computers. These usually have hardware arrangements that make them efficient. If a supplier in an outsourcing arrangement is required to supply such computers, it is also important to look at what will happen when those personal computers are to be replaced. In particular, what will happen to the old computers? Are they going to be disposed of? If so, this will introduce an energy inefficiency. It may be that the business wants to ensure that the outsource service provider "recycles" those computers, perhaps by giving them to a Third World charity.

The next issue in any contract is to consider what damages will be payable if the supplier does not reach the "green" computing targets included in the contract. In the context of English law, damages are meant to be a method (only) for compensating a party for the loss that party has suffered. In the context of such "green" obligations that loss may be unclear.

Furthermore, any attempt to quantify those damages in advance would need to be done with care. If the payer of the damages later challenges the amount payable, the payer may be able successfully to argue that they are not, in fact, payable. This, at least, will be the case where the damages are not a genuine pre-estimate of the likely loss. The clause that requires those damages to be paid would then be regarded, in English law, as a penalty clause (and unenforceable) rather than a liquidated damages clause.

Data security

Undoubtedly one of the most important reasons for the continued inefficiency of computer systems has to do with IT security. Most IT systems could be made much more efficient if a greater utilisation of individual computer processors and computer servers was made. However, in many circumstances IT departments are reluctant to do so for good security reasons. Why, for example, would an IT department wish to dispose of a server in order to save a modest amount of electricity a year, where by doing so it would reduce the IT security of a business? It is a truism that most servers in data centres are operated at much less than at their peak capacity.

Consider by way of example, a company which has a personnel management information system. Most companies will, quite properly, keep this personnel system separate from the rest of their corporate information systems. This is because most members of staff need to have access to the corporate information systems. Only the personnel managers and senior management employees of the company will need access to the personnel system.

Indeed, it is a legal requirement to keep such systems separate, or at least to consider the separate security implications of a personnel system with a view to having separate access controls. This is a result of the current UK legislation on data protection, the Data Protection Act 1998. A company would be well advised, given the lack of legislative drivers for green computing, to consider the consequences carefully before combining the general information system and the personnel system of the company. Keeping these systems on separate servers where this already takes place is a sensible (and economic) security precaution.


Green IT is, at least at the moment, difficult to define, let alone achieve. However, there may be some simple yet important steps that can be taken which are similar to those which can be taken with one's home computer. For example, ensuring that personal computers go to standby mode or are automatically switched off at night when they are not being used. Similarly, batch printing can often reduce energy costs.

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