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Green desktop IT: Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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In this special edition of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Gartner’s Annette Zimmerman discusses desktop IT’s circular economy

Analyst firm Gartner has been looking at the emerging sustainability-enabling technologies. In this podcast, we speak to Gartner research director Annette Zimmerman about reducing the carbon emissions of IT hardware.

The IT market is beginning to play a role in helping organisations reduce carbon emissions as part of a global effort to reduce global warming. Zimmerman has been working at Gartner for over 10 years and has covered several technology markets. Most recently, she says: “I’ve been looking at the very important topic of sustainability.”

Metrics for the PC industry are based around the number of units shipped. The industry is geared up to encourage users to upgrade. Data from Gartner reveals that a desktop PC will typically last five years. Zimmerman says the useful life of a desktop PC may even be a bit longer.

“For a laptop, we usually see two to four years,” she adds. But, on average, laptops last around three years.

SaaS options

Another factor worth considering is that modern PC applications are increasingly being offered as cloud-based software, via a web browser user interface. For instance, while an IT administrator can install Office 365 on PC hardware directly, the applications – such as Excel, Word and PowerPoint – are available through Microsoft’s online portal as browser-based applications.

Generally, such browser-based applications require less powerful hardware compared to traditional desktop deployment. Zimmerman says that by using software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud-based applications, businesses can lower the carbon footprint associated with PC hardware. Theoretically, SaaS can prolong the useful life of older PC hardware, which both helps to reduce CO2 emissions and saves money, since these older machines can remain useful for far longer.

Second user market

For a desktop or laptop user who requires the greatest level of performance, a high-end PC purchased a few years ago may be past its useful life. But the device may still be of value to those not in the “power user” bracket. Enterprises often reimage PC hardware to provide second and even third users with a workable device.

This leads on to the area of refurbished devices. “The biggest challenge with refurbished PCs is that you need to do it in a safe way,” says Zimmerman. It’s not as simple as in the consumer market, where you go onto eBay and look for a refurbished iPhone or Android device. Enterprises have different requirements.”

Devices need to be available and need to be in a good condition, ideally certified by the refurbished PC provider. “Availability of these enterprise-grade devices is the first hurdle,” says Zimmerman.

But being serious about the circular economy also means having a way for an enterprise’s existing devices to be fed into the refurbishment programmes. Zimmerman believes this is where the market will be going over the next few years. “Hardware vendors should be supporting refurbishment. More and more are taking back enterprise devices,” she says.

Why upgrade at all

Given the longevity of these devices, IT leaders may sometimes find it hard to justify upgrading a machine that is fit for purpose. However, as Zimmerman notes, the main benefit of newer hardware is increased productivity and, more importantly, the need for IT departments to stay on top of the latest security features in hardware and software.

Security, she says, could be at the chip level, which goes hand in hand with software. “Security patches do not only come from software, but also from certain hardware features. So, if you have a laptop that is really old and outdated, then you might not be able to get to the latest security features.”

Nevertheless, a device that is three years old may already have the latest security hardware built-in. Just increasing the lifespan of the device by an extra year, from three to four, represents a big step in reducing carbon emissions, says Zimmerman.

Gartner’s market share data shows that 50 million business laptops were shipped in 2021. A typical PC will generate 350kg of CO2 emissions during its lifetime. With 50 million business PC devices shipped annually, the total carbon emissions equates to 17.5 tonnes of CO2. “If you just extend the life of a laptop by just one year, there’s a great potential to reduce CO2.”

And, as Zimmerman notes, only a quarter of the device’s carbon emission during its useful life comes from actual usage. 

Extending the life of a device by 25% also has cost benefits, by spreading the acquisition cost over four years, rather than three. “That’s also one of the big drivers for sustainability,” says Zimmerman. It means IT departments are able to become more sustainable and reduce their PC hardware acquisition costs.

The industry is also working to develop a circular economy around PC refurbishment. Just as in the case of an enterprise handing down older higher-end PCs to users who require less powerful devices, there is no reason why PC disposal and refurbishment programmes cannot similarly offer second user systems to businesses that would prefer not to spend on the latest hardware, but are happy to wait a few years to benefit from the technology innovations such devices offer.

Zimmerman says leading PC manufacturers already offer this for business-grade laptops. But she adds: “I think it is important that they expand this business and make these devices available as well as help all their customers in taking those back and giving them an option to dispose of the devices that they don’t need any more. It’s a business that is definitely growing.”

Read more about green IT

  • With sustainability moving up the boardroom agenda, CIOs and IT managers should look to revamp their IT procurement strategies to align with the principles of the circular economy.
  • Reorienting the tech sector around collaboration rather than competition and reassessing the industry’s conventional wisdom around economic growth is essential to improving sustainability on the timescale needed.

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