It is time to turf out your servers and replace them with mainframes, according to IBM.
As part of Project Big Green, the company is virtualising 3,900 servers on 30 System Z mainframes running Linux partitions. It says that this will save 80% on power bills and offer greater flexibility for future developments.
When it comes to being green and being perceived to be green, IBM's project typifies the problem that most environmentally friendly wannabes face: how to cut down waste and positively affect the bottom line. Ignoring the fact that 3,900 servers will add substantially to the IT junk mountain, IBM wants to show it can lead the way in energy conservation and to teach its larger customers how they can also reduce carbon emissions.
Buying 30 mainframes, disposing of and re-commissioning the existing servers, and migrating the network and disc storage to the new topology will have an immediate negative effect on IBM's bottom line.
Over time, the savings on energy costs and the reduction in the number of cooling systems will add to the savings on real estate to house the reduced footprint of the datacentres. And, if the company's example is followed by its blue chip customers, the extra income from IBM Global Services and the accompanying hardware sales will soften the blow.
Finding green beans
IBM seems to have created a potential offset for its costs, but many companies are still too mean to be green or, more accurately, too lean.
Energy savings are slow to deliver a return on investment (ROI) and it is only the carbon emission gladiators who would willingly sign up to such a major project. Companies want to be seen to be green, but not at premium prices.
Ian Brown, a senior analyst in Ovum's IT services practice, says the potential drivers are less to do with environmental issues and more to do with cost-cutting.
"They are running up against problems of how to keep their racks of servers cool, or they are running into space issues.
"For them, there is a certain reality about the cost of the energy they are consuming and their ability to cram more capacity into the datacentre," he says.
Brown sees these issues as less compelling for SMEs. "The vast majority of small and medium enterprises do not have so much of an issue around power, cooling and energy consumption, and they are usually not aware of actual energy costs," he says.
"The bills are dealt with by the facilities manager rather than whoever manages the IT operations. It is only when the facilities manager knocks on the door to say that the energy bill has gone sky high that they become really aware of that.
"The reality is that there are bigger costs for their computer operations than the energy costs, and there are other issues they feel they need to devote time to rather than swapping out one kind of a computer for a low energy-consuming computer, blade array or whatever the latest marketing fad is from the suppliers."
Attitudes to carbon emissions
Printer manufacturer Kyocera and paper manufacturer M-Real sponsored Loudhouse Research Consultancy to sample attitudes to carbon emission and waste issues. The sample comprised 340 directors, buyers and employees in companies with more than 1,000 employees.
This was a follow-up to research Kyocera conducted in 1993, and some interesting contrasts emerged. A key question was whether companies had a defined policy on maintaining an environmentally-friendly office. In 1993, 54% of the respondents claimed to have one, but in 2007 this had dropped to 41%.
Tracey Rawling Church, marketing director at Kyocera Mita, says this does not equate with declining interest. "It is more to do with the increased complexity around sustainability issues," she says.
"Fourteen years ago, if you were recycling waste paper and buying CFC-free aerosols you could consider yourself to be a good environmental citizen. These days it is about carbon footprint, carbon trading, lifecycle analysis, and issues such as whether recycled paper is better than sustainable paper, or if an LPG vehicle is better for the environment than a diesel engine. There is so much more complexity that many companies see the task as too big and challenging."
Many companies are looking at carbon offsetting as a quick solution. The attitude is that they may be polluting the atmosphere but this is offset by paying an environment tax. This money is used for tree planting and for sponsoring others to cut emissions. Little is known about how effective some of these policies are, and in some cases it resembles the practices of monks in the Middle Ages who sold Indulgences. These worthless pieces of paper promised the bearer an easier route to heaven regardless of their earthly sins.
Reduce, re-use, recycle
Rawling Church is a great believer in the reduce, re-use, recycle mantra. Try to reduce waste output in the first place, then re-use anything that can be recommissioned or re-purposed, and recycle the remainder. Kyocera has been banging this drum for almost two decades. The drum in question is the one in most printer cartridges.
Hewlett-Packard has said users of the HP colour Laserjet CP3505 series need only replace the print cartridge and will not need to replace the drum, fuser, or maintenance, cleaning and transfer kits. However, Rawling Church points out that Kyocera has had a simple toner cartridge for more than 10 years.
Simon Mingay, Gartner research vice-president, says that the environmental price for change has to be taken into account. "Recycling may be a good thing to do, but there is also an energy cost in doing it," he says.
Recycled materials have to be collected, transported and then broken down. All these processes have a cost, and Mingay says that companies should look at reuse before recycling.
Future for IT systems
It is too early to predict details of what effect the green revolution will have on IT systems, but general trends are appearing.
IBM has taken server consolidation to an extreme, but the principles of virtualisation and consolidation in the server and storage markets are also gaining ground in the PC-centric world. Servers that are under-used can be consolidated onto a single computer to get more value per kilowatt. Care has to be taken with consolidation to ensure that all applications running on a single machine are compatible and that periods of high demand do not coincide.
The London Borough of Hillingdon is consolidating the loads from 40 legacy servers onto three HP DL585 servers based on AMD dual-core processors. The council calculates that this will reduce power requirements by 82%.
Job scheduler software
Even so, greater savings can be made because servers often lie dormant for periods. According to Mingay, this is already being compensated for by some companies.
In July he co-authored a research paper, "The Role of Job Schedulers in Reducing Power Consumption and Carbon Dioxide Emissions", which looked at how IT departments can exploit the inherent capability of job scheduler software to organise tasks such as power management, and their ability to handle events and complex global dependencies to reduce power consumption.
"There is a lot of equipment that is not being used 24x7, and with a little bit of housekeeping it could be turned off for a period during the day, the week or the month.
"Increasingly, you will see technology at the infrastructure management level that will directly influence the power status of storage servers based on events, schedules and back capacity requirements," he says.
The US Environment Protection Agency is working out the details of an Energy Star labelling scheme for enterprise servers. This will show how the servers perform under various workload levels and will help to determine what degree of power savings can be made.
Even small changes can have a big effect. In the desktop arena, Barclays Bank banned the use of screen savers, calculating that this will save £1m a year in energy costs.
These are the kind of energy-saving measures that companies should be looking for, but, rather than absorbing the savings to reduce the bottom line, the money should be reinvested in other energy-saving projects.
Greening the desktop
It may be that it is time for a rethink of the desktop environment. Government chief information officer John Suffolk is recommending a move to thin clients. The public sector spends £1bn a year on PCs and he hopes that the move will increase security and offer savings in power usage and the costs of maintaining desktop systems.
The Rural Payments Agency has embarked on a project with Sun Microsystems. The aim is to replace 5,000 PCs with Sun Ray thin clients to reduce the cost of ownership and reduce the agency's carbon footprint. Although the Sun Rays cost about the same as a PC to purchase and install, the ongoing costs are much reduced because the clients last two or three times as long as a PC. This also reduces waste, and the lower power consumption reduces the energy bill.
However, Mingay says this is not the way to view IT and its environmental effect.
"People tend to look only at the in-use phase. If you take the environmental effect seriously you have to also consider how much energy went into manufacturing, distribution and how much impact the disposal phase will have at the end of something's useful life - and how long that life is," he says.
Mingay says that when rolling out thin clients, organisations need to consider the environmental impact of the server. He also asks if the manufacturers' estimates of thin client lifespan will be accurate and if they can be reused in the same way a PC can be redeployed within a company.
His message is that short-term view is not enough to help the environment. Knock on effects have to be considered and the only way to protect against criticism is to take a holistic approach.