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The race to net zero: Six ways to slash IT infrastructure emissions
Strategies aimed at successfully cutting climate risk can appear to be stymieing business sustainability. How can the industry remain productive?
Organisations that prioritise the monstrous task of reducing IT emissions can and will remain competitive, sustainability experts assure Computer Weekly, but this will mean picking optimum targets. Here, we look at six ways to do that.
1. Fix problematic thinking about tech
In a Bible story, David the shepherd boy slays Goliath, a terrifying warrior, with a carefully aimed stone, saving his people against the odds. IT can do similarly, countering the current inertia and overwhelm around emissions targets.
However, success will be less about the technologies themselves and more about attitiude. Real results require different thinking, as Mark Butcher, director of Posetiv Cloud, explains. “Can I be blunt? We have to cut through all the crap,” he says. “Even the world’s largest organisations are working with a lot of fluff and nonsense on this.”
Infrastructure providers must ignore the greenwashing and break free from wishful thinking. “Innovating” our way to net zero should be less of a focus as new technology “solutions” may, quite simply, not appear in time.
On 13 February 2023, Carbon Market Watch confirmed that net-zero pledges are delivering only a superficial impression that industries, including major multinationals, are on track with emissions reduction. The world needs to almost halve its total carbon footprint to keep beneath that “relatively safe” 1.5ºC.
And legislation will make those organisations that are avoiding real change unprofitable, as well as unsustainable. Providers that fear tackling emissions will make them “uncompetitive” against their peers should worry less. Cost and carbon are set to become the major levers for auditors, he says.
Meanwhile, for those “following the science”, future pledges are not enough. IT infrastructure providers must change their thinking and mindset about the whole problem, working alone and together to ramp up emissions reduction from all angles, across every kind of tech, he says.
2. Work backwards from future goals, plan accordingly
Enterprises must look at where they want to be, what represents success, and plan their route, based on strategies that drive resiliency and sustainability. One size won’t fit all; deploy whatever tech will drive those goals according to individual circumstances, says Butcher.
Look at every part of the organisation, including culture, current setup and concerns. Funding, budget, key performance indicators and programmes of work should then be aligned to slash emissions. The “whole strategic way” of running IT services may need to change, he warns.
“The biggest problem is often that in most organisations it’s no one’s job to do this. And if it’s no one’s job it never happens,” says Butcher.
Max Schulze, founder of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA), agrees. Providers must figure out how to reach their desired future from where they are today. What they need versus what can be jettisoned is rarely examined.
“Define that and ask what technology and rules can enable that,” he says. “Figure out the steps to take you to that place instead of going wherever the rollercoaster takes you.”
Sustainable businesses will ultimately be more competitive, not least because the process will also help slay what GigaOm’s lead analyst for network and edge, Chris Grundemann, terms “the largest lurking monster in infrastructure IT”: interconnection management, by stitching piecemeal concerns together in a whole that will make sense and savings.
3. Prioritise tech investments that build towards sustainability
Steen Dalgas, cloud economist for Western Europe and sub-Saharan Africa at hyper-converged infrastructure supplier Nutanix, underlines that while a stronger foundation may cost more to begin with, it can support larger reductions and efficiency longer term.
Moving from legacy infrastructure to hyperconverged platforms can slash energy use if it means reducing 20 server racks to just two. Those two racks can then be moved to a maximally efficient datacentre, building towards minimised emissions while lowering ongoing costs.
“It might seem like you’re adding Scope 3, buying in embedded emissions, but it allows you to go up that pyramid of greater efficiency,” Dalgas maintains. “Shutting down your datacentre and moving to colocation is easier with a smaller footprint.”
Then tackle platform automation and devote more resources to transforming people’s behaviour towards reduced consumption.
“Create a link between consumer of resources and actual consumption of resources in the datacentre so the user can understand their actions directly impact company costs and CO2 emissions,” he says. “This can be done if measuring carbon by virtual machine – and help change the culture.
“We used to delete all our mail and only keep files we used. Now it’s as if storage is perceived to be free, and we’ve gone away from measuring energy consumption at the rack,” Dalgas points out.
4. Develop and deploy better metrics to improve IT choices
Posetiv’s Butcher prescribes de-emphasis of calculations with vendor-supplied data based on old, inappropriate, or non-real-time models, or that don’t account for individual circumstances.
“Loads of companies are obsessing about completely the wrong thing,” he says.
Scope 3 is typically the biggest chunk of emissions – the physicality of buildings, datacentres, service stores, load balancers, network switches, cloud services and so on connecting to the same location, desktops, printers, etc. “Which no one’s really looking at, because it’s on the ‘too hard’ pile,” says Butcher.
Many companies, including major cloud providers, exclude Scope 3 from calculations, vastly underestimating emissions, he says. Full transparency around data and metrics that mean something will drive better decisions on emissions as well as sustaining competitiveness.
Target carbon intensity, grammes of CO2 per kilowatt hour, rather than datacentre efficiency per se. The world’s most efficient datacentre will still waste resources if in the wrong location – in Swindon, say, versus Scotland’s current large share of renewables, Butcher points out.
Better metrics will take time to develop but it’s essential to get on with the task, explains Faith Taylor, global sustainability officer at Kyndryl.
“We’re on that path,” she says. “Across the enterprise, you have to understand what you should be capturing from a data standpoint. We establish our baseline and set goals.”
Even small and medium-sized enterprises with fewer resources can make progress on this, using tech to enable their approach to data and carbon footprinting. “Scope 2 is not that difficult. Scope 3 is the area that I would say for everyone is a major opportunity for improvement,” Taylor confirms.
5. Build less wasteful services, processes and practices
Taylor notes that 20% of the data can be driving 80% of the results. Enterprises must go through and prioritise their data, ensuring data integrity with software tools and third-party validation based on correct principles.
Another elephant in the room is the inefficient build of many services, including in the cloud.
“The average waste in enterprise IT and cloud is 40%,” argues Posetiv’s Butcher. “Think about every pound you’re spending.”
Figure out what’s oversized, overprovisioned, forgotten about, badly designed, badly coded, the wrong code, the wrong service or otherwise wasted. If you want to be more sustainable, get ruthless about switching things off.
John Booth, managing director at consultancy Carbon3IT, explains that baselining accurately can be the biggest monster to slay. “All organisations need to understand what they have, who is using it, and how much it costs from a total cost of ownership perspective. Only then can they improve and be more efficient.”
Right now, there’s a “vicious circle” of new hardware development, improving components, with software companies competing to take advantage of new memory and storage opportunities.
Older kit is often still serviceable, while many workers only use basic office and web software, hardly scraping the surface of pre-installed applications. This is not only the wrong approach, but reflects the wrong attitude, warns Booth.
Yet many companies argue that they can’t change first when it comes to tech refresh patterns because they’ll lose market share.
“More dialogue between tech companies could really address climate and resource problems. We need to be more collaborative. ‘Business as usual’ is not going to work,” he insists.
Everything pertaining to IT, from extraction and processing of raw materials to their transportation, the energy and carbon emitted during manufacturing, to the use phase and any waste, needs a radical rethink.
“We need to dematerialise and reuse,” says Booth. “Over 50% of the periodic table is used in green IT. We recover almost nothing.”
6. Collaborate on demands, then ‘globalise’ the approach
Kyndryl’s Taylor says the biggest challenge could be achieving a globalised approach. “You can get the data and roll up to a city, a region, a country. Then you have to look at it across country. And then you have to ask about standardised systems around the world.”
Data capture and strategy need to make tracking and measuring, and then progress on emissions, productive globally. It’s not enough to simply sign up for net zero – someone needs to develop those systems, she says.
“At the same time, you need to build in resiliency,” she says, across countries as well as within organisations and also with partners. That means things like looking at electricity storage and data sharing, even across systems such as data recovery.
Culturally, individuals inside enterprise IT may care about emissions but not feel their own actions have impact, so this too needs addressing.
“Infrastructure teams normally only look at energy. The cloud ops teams normally look at, say, the data from Amazon,” says Posetiv’s Butcher. “Different scopes, calculation models and approaches are needed.”
Break down silos and align everyone, adds SDIA’s Schulze. And once you’ve got them singing from the same hymn sheet, take that perspective and ask what’s going on outside your doors. And ask governments to help with larger initiatives that benefit your region.
“Walk out of the facility around a 10km radius and say hello to everybody. You might meet some people that need heat, or have ideas on how to save water,” says Schulze.
The key message is that, like David, you can engage the enemy alone. This can also move you ahead of rivals. Because reducing emissions goes hand-in-hand with efficiency and business sustainability, it can and will increasingly translate into profits.
“If we don’t do something about this radically, we’re going to hell in a handcart,” concludes Nutanix’s Dalgas. “This is a business resilience, business risk issue – and it’s not 10 years away, it’s here now.”