Is green IT an illusion?

Green IT is a hot topic in the IT industry, but just how effective is green computing? Mick James asks whether there really is such a thing as green IT

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This autumn, PC World will launch its first "green" PC, and surely herald a wave of such products to hit both home and business. Is this the signal that it is time to clear out the techno-junk and invest in a new generation of ecologically sound hardware?

Even if there is a lot of "green washing" of products that would have come out anyway, it would seem that the environmental benefits are clear cut. Unfortunately, however, it is more complicated than that: most of the green promises on offer centre on energy usage, and this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to IT's ecological impact.

"The problem with looking at power consumption alone between PCs and other products is that the vast majority of the environmental cost occurs before you even switch on the PC - it is the complete opposite of a fridge or a washing machine," says Tony Roberts, managing director of charity Computer Aid.

He cites a UN University report from 2004 that found a PC required 10 times its weight in raw materials at the manufacturing stage.

"If we look only at power savings we can only possibly be looking at 25% of the problem. It is the same with screens: manufacturers are saying you need to switch to flat screens to make an environmental saving, but the logical thing to do is to use cathode ray tubes to the end of their productive life," says Roberts.

Computer Aid ships between 2,000 and 3,000 PCs a month to the developing world, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated three million computers that are decommissioned each year in the UK alone. Although the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive means that they no longer end up as landfill, it is still a waste of resources.

"Some of the original equipment manufacturers who are now running these take-back schemes are actually stripping down perfectly good Pentium 4 machines and recycling them as if that were a good thing for the environment.

"They are not targeting reuse because there is no money in it and it does not suit their interest to have a large refurbished market. When we refurbish machines and send them overseas they enjoy on average another 6,000 user hours," says Roberts.

Some PCs do not even make it as far as the recycling plant. "About 20% of computers end up sitting under desks or in back rooms. People are loath to throw them away because they remember how much they cost. It is an asset that is just depreciating, but which could have enormous power to save lives in a hospital or to create wealth and jobs," says Roberts.

Reuse projects such as Computer Aid are one solution to the problem of redundant PCs. But there are more fundamental issues with the whole model of computing that has grown up around the never ending bounty of Moore's Law and the runaway success of the workhouse PC.

"We are so set in the mindset of the PC that we built a billion machines which were primarily designed to be disconnected," says Quentin Stafford-Fraser, executive director of Ndiyo, which aims to develop sustainable networks for the developing world.

"Actually, all the interesting things you can do with them come when you connect them to the network," he says.

Stafford-Fraser says that while the developed world sees PCs more or less as consumables, for the rest of the world a PC costs half a year's salary. When PCs were primarily office productivity machines, this was not an issue, but as communication devices they can now play a vital role in transforming the economies of countries with poor transport infrastructure. Mobile phones are already being effectively employed in this capacity.

The problem with PCs is not just their expense, but their ongoing need for power and maintenance. One device that offers a way to reduce this is the Nivo from Ndiyo - a device designed as the "thinnest of thin clients", allowing a small network to be set up using just a PC and a handful of screens and keyboards.

Rather than being a cut-down workstation, the Nivo only exists to transfer keystrokes and pixels to and from a central PC, drastically reducing power and maintenance.

"Being green was not originally our motivation. Low power consumption is useful in itself in situations where you want to run off a generator or solar power the cost of solar power, for example, is pretty much proportional to the amount of watts you want to generate.

"To run an internet cafe, for instance, on solar power, would cost thousands of pounds more than on a conventional supply," says Stafford-Fraser.

The challenge for Ndiyo is that the device needs to be mass-produced to become cheap enough, and there is not yet a robust enough distribution channel to connect it to its target end-users. But Stafford-Fraser hopes that, like the wind-up radio before it, the Nivo chip will eventually justify itself in a Western consumer concept, being automatically built into monitors.

"Eventually this will be the way we do it in the Western world by choice. You have light bulbs all round the house where you want light - so you have wires, a fuse box and somewhere else a generator. But everywhere we want computing we have a computer generating a lot of light and noise," he says.

Thin client computing tends to provoke a lot of harrumphing from IT professionals, but the big IT companies are reviving thin clients and terminal emulation in a back-to-basics move which has seen IBM revive the mainframe as part of its Project Big Green, consolidating 3,900 assorted servers onto just 30 z9s.

Meanwhile Hewlett-Packard's purchase of virtualisation specialist Neoware is an explicit attempt to gain leadership in the thin-client arena.

To its credit, however, Hewlett-Packard is not so much pushing individual products as green, as it is looking at the total impact that it has as a company, looking at areas such as packing and shipping, as well as its products.

"You need an overall programme driven from the top," says Ian Brooks, Hewlett-Packard's industry marketing manager for the UK.

"You can improve the cooling in the datacentre, you can look at thin clients or energy efficient PCs on the desktop, but then you need to look at how to reduce commuting, by working from home or using laptops with mobile data cards.

"Then you can think about printing and imaging. At Hewlett-Packard we have moved to a central print function. There are no desktop printers - it is centrally managed and run - and then you can enforce things like double-sided printing," he says.

For Brooks, the "green IT" movement represents an opportunity for the CIO to support their organisation's wider green agenda by regaining control of company IT purchasing.

"If you look at the way people used to buy things, typically every department had its own little piece of IT.

"Even when you have centralised IT functions it is driven by business requirements, and the IT function will be told, we need another one of these. Now is a great time for the CIO to step up and say, here is something that the board is struggling with and I have a great story to tell," says Brookes.

Centralisation of IT offers companies a chance to deploy virtualisation techniques that can radically improve the utilisation of servers. According to Claus Egge, the program director of European storage systems research at research company IDC, virtualisation is such a "no-brainer" that IDC's researchers are already scaling back their estimates for server shipments for next year.

The problem is that the IT industry is already sitting on a mountain of inefficiency, largely created by its own technological success.

"The improvements in price performance you would get in one year were so great, the storage improvement alone was so attractive in itself, that people did not exploit stuff, it was easier to be wasteful," says Egge.

"That is a cycle which is coming to an end, as it is becoming more difficult to cram more stuff in the same footprint. There is so much heat in a confined space that people are encouraged not to populate the server completely, so physical space has become an issue.

"Also IT departments are finding that they cannot put more power into IT sites - the power company will not play ball," says Egge.

With space and power at a premium, the hope is that businesses will begin to look at IT in the same way that they have looked at areas such as supply chain management, according to Chris Gabriel, head of solutions marketing at integration IT provider Logicalis.

"I always compare IT to the supply chain, because it delivers stuff to the business. If I was a parcel firm I would not buy an articulated lorry if I needed a transit just on the off-chance I might need it," he says.

The key is to not just invest in green products, but to be more efficient. "I can go into Curry's and buy the most efficient fridge in the world, but if I stick one bottle of milk in it, it is not efficient. So do not tell me how efficient your product is, tell me how to make it efficient," says Gabriel.

To this end, Logicalis has teamed up with charity Global Action Plan, sponsoring the Environmental IT Leadership Team to bring together end-users to debate the issues.

In the meantime, Gabriel sees the current wave of green IT as essentially benign. "With pretty much everything we have found that has been "green", the greenness is a by-product of the real reason you would buy it.

"But so what if every product now has a tinge of green - the question is: why would you not want to do these things?" he says.

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