The IT industry has only recently embarked upon the learning curve of green computing. Helen Beckett looks at what suppliers and users are doing to help meet the green challenge
The IT industry is digesting the unpalatable fact that it is not as green as its public image, at the same time as business is finally getting interested in greener computing. A survey published by Greenpeace in August named and shamed PC and laptop suppliers who scored poorly on their manufacturing processes. And environmental agencies report increasing interest from businesses stung into action, less by concerns about climate change than the spiralling cost of energy.
Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics ranked the top 14 PC and laptop producers on their use of harmful chemicals and waste recycling. Not one PC manufacturer gained a green ranking, while Apple and HP products contained the highest levels of toxins, according to Greenpeace.
"The IT industry is believed to be about making our lives easier and better, and yet even the best performers were all in the 'could do better' bracket," says Zeina Alhajj, Greenpeace international toxics campaigner.
While green debate had been largely confined to lobbyists, scientists and the politicians, the roasting temperatures of the summer pushed it onto the radar of IT suppliers and directors.
Many companies experienced the "brown out" across London as the National Grid collapsed under the high demand for energy to cool offices and computer rooms. Even a technical computing consultancy admitted to Computer Weekly that its computer room overheated in the summer.
The Carbon Trust, a non-profit organisation funded by the UK government, estimates that office equipment now accounts for about 15% of total energy use in the UK. The figure is set to rise to 30% by 2020, with PC monitors and system units accounting for about 65% of consumption.
Chris Grant, head of datacentre services at data, voice and managed service provider Colt Telecom, says that reducing carbon emissions is a learning curve that the industry has only recently embarked on.
Colt Telecom has more or less hit the capacity buffers and wants to build the next generation of datacentres. "We went to designers of datacentres and asked them about the most efficient methods of cooling: air, water or whether to run them at a slightly higher temperature. No one knew the answer," says Grant, who has since set up his own study group.
Demand for green computing from business is not high either, although IT is getting more clued up about greener methods of delivering processing power.
The main motivation for companies to start "greening" their IT operations is to reduce the energy bill. "The chief financial officer is being asked to scrutinise every line item in the budget," says Richard Edwards, senior research analyst at Butler Group.
"If the chief financial officer investigates and discovers recent IT purchases then that is an immediate escalator for any operation because IT represents a double jeopardy. It is not only the power required to run the equipment, but the power needed to cool it too," says Edwards.
Also, the density of IT equipment per cubic metre is 20 to 50 times what it was 50 years ago, and IT is more power hungry. "Chips are running at faster and hotter rates," says Edwards.
The combination of the rising cost of energy and the global environmental debate are converging to create a green consciousness in the IT department, according to Edwards.
But knowing where to start the greening of the IT department is a tough call for the IT director: the green agenda is so often discussed at the macro or the micro level, with not a lot in between. If a CIO is not reading up on climate change and calculating how to offset the department's carbon emissions, should he instead be running around switching off lights?
Chris Hope, author of one of the climate change models used in the government report the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, believes that the world is moving towards a position where businesses will not have to worry about their individual carbon emissions. "Businesses will not have to do incredibly complex sums to work out their carbon footprint." Instead, predicts Hope, a climate change tax will ensure green thinking is factored into everyday business decisions.
There are legal obligations on recycling that IT directors need to know which become law in January 2007. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive places obligations on manufacturers and retailers to recycle products they sell, and this could put up to 5% on the price tag of goods. Crucially, in the business-to-business realm, a supplier is able to pass their recycling obligations on to the business customer.
"An IT director needs to read the small print of procurement contracts very carefully next year," says Jane Southworth, senior associate with law firm Eversheds.
"If the supplier keeps the obligation, it will be factored into the price. But if the supplier goes out of business before the end of the product life, the company will have to pick up the tab and effectively pays twice." IT directors may choose to take responsibility for recycling and have this reflected in the purchase price.
There is no shortage of advice for IT directors on green practice around the use of IT. Global Action Plan, a charity providing practical environmental advice, has worked with 60 organisations from a variety of sectors, including schools and investment banks.
The charity trains staff to conduct their own carbon audit, benchmarks this against other firms and then works with employees to create change. The audit examines the amount of carbon consumed over a 12-month period, a 24-hour period and when a building is supposed to be shut down.
Director of Global Action Plan, Trewin Restorick, says that tackling energy hotspots is an easy win for any company. "Often it is very simple things that happen in all organisations, like leaving PCs and monitors switched on when they are not being used."
Companies that Global Action Plan work with reduce their energy consumption by on average 12% and their waste by 38%.
Restorick also spends time exposing IT myths such as the need to leave PCs on overnight so software can be patched or updated. "In fact the updates occur when the PC is switched back on," he says.
While most people would support these environmentally friendlier uses of IT, changing behaviour to act on them is something else. Restorick invites staff to think of non-intimidating ways of naming and shaming staff that leave their monitors on over lunch, such as tying balloons to culprits' desks.
According to Restorick, however, the best wake-up call is the exercise bike the charity harnesses to various electronic devices. Users have to cycle in order to power the devices. "The one that gets them every time is the normal light bulb compared to the long-life one," he says.
Aberdeen Council's IT department decided to take matters out of end-users' hands as part of its Sustainability Charter. Neil Foster, head of IT, says, "Something we have pushed hard on for the past five years is powering PCs down when they are not in use. We build settings into PCs that shuts the hard drive down after 10 minutes and puts PCs into a 'soft sleep' mode after 15. It is inconvenient for users who have to switch it back on and log in again."
For IT directors wanting to think bigger about how to implement a greener IT infrastructure, there is valuable advice coming out of the construction industry.
Rajesh Sinha, technical director for bespoke IT systems supplier Bailey Teswaine, advocates a centralised IT model as the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly. "Thin client devices require a fraction of the power of PCs, and the lack of moving parts extends the lifespan from two to three years to more than five," he says.
Convergence is another tool for reducing the energy bill and promoting a more pleasant office environment. Combining voice, data, audio visual and other applications to a single network brings cost and energy savings. "Do not stop doing the little things," says Sinha.
He also points out the benefit of embracing an environmental management system. "If there is a broad policy in place, over time you will be able to make fundamental changes."
While most people are starting to do their bit for the planet, there are plenty of old-fashioned energy consumers about. Edwards cites the investment bank that replaced its CRT monitors with more environmentally friendly flat screen monitors, only for the IT manager to see it as an opportunity to instate more traders on the floor.
The WEEE directive >>
What are the carbon hotspots in the IT department?
Items such as servers, PCs, printers and photocopiers, which tend to be left on even when not being used. PC monitors use 50% of the energy requirement.
How to reduce carbon hotspots:
● An easy way of reducing power consumption is by turning devices off when they are not in use, and not just switching them to standby mode.
● IT departments can also configure PCs to shut down after a period of inactivity.
● The best and easiest way to reduce carbon emissions is to switch electricity provider to one that supplies energy from renewable sources.
Source: Carbon Footprint