One of the paradoxes at the heart of computing is that for all its power to improve the world, in one respect it is doing the opposite, thanks to its apparently insatiable appetite for electricity. As we are becoming increasingly aware, most electricity produced today has serious negative consequences for the environment, and so the more we use and depend on computers for our daily lives, the more we damage our planet.
This has led to the rise of the field of “green IT” - an attempt to minimise that damage through a more intelligent use of better-designed computing solutions. A new book called Greening IT – freely available online – provides a handy overview of this field, as well as some practical suggestions as to what people in the computer industry can do to make their operations less harmful.
It starts from a fairly depressing premise:
Not only has IT never been green, it’s horrendously wasteful, it encourages people to discard and adopt the newest gadget in ever-shorter cycles of consumption and it pollutes as much as any other industry. It has also taken Schumpeter’s creative destruction model of capitalism to a new and disturbing height, and changed our expectations around growth, seed capital and return on investment.
Surprisingly, perhaps, green IT is not really a technical problem according to the authors of this book:
The reason IT is not green at this moment is at least as much due to perverse incentives. Green IT is about power and money, about raising barriers to trade, segmenting markets and differentiating products. Many of the problems can be explained more clearly and convincingly using the language of economics: asymmetric information, moral hazard, switching and transaction costs and innovation. Green IT is not a technical problem, but an economical problem to be solved.
In terms of solutions, the book is upbeat about cloud computing, seeing three main benefits from its deployment:
The direct impact of cloud computing relates to the reduction in CO2 emissions directly based on its usage. As usual, the direct impacts are the most obvious and in cloud computing’s case they are due to significant reductions in privately owned hardware and higher utilisation of cloud resources. This is due to the leveraging of ‘cloud based’ centralised third parties who are capable of providing IT capabilities as a service to masses of customers simultaneously. The direct result of this is a drop in global electricity consumption attributed to powering the hardware as well as that attributed to cooling the hardware.
The indirect impact of cloud computing relates to the reduction in CO2 emissions attributable to its usage rather than its operation. Businesses will be able to focus more on their core business rather needing to dedicate so many resources to running their IT infrastructure and services.
A society built around offices and meeting rooms can be broken down to employees that will be able to work where they want and leverage crystal clear, lag free video conferencing.
There is a filter down effect resulting from these types of possibilities. For example due to the diminished requirement to sit in front of a desktop at work, etc the necessity of commuting to work every day diminishes, as does the need to live in high density cities. The burden on our streets and public transport diminishes, and the CO2 emission reductions follow.
The book also extols the green credentials of what might seem something of an outmoded technology: thin clients.
The first and most obvious environmental element of a Thin Client is that it is energy efficient. Typically a Thin Client uses 10% of an average PC. Thin Clients’ power consumption can range from 2 Watts to 30 Watts but average around the 15 Watts. A Thin Client called the Cherry Pal was released in 2008 that consumed just 2 watts.
Typically a PC consumes around 100 Watts, but this is variable and many manufacturers are improving their overall power consumption as Green IT projects develop.
The second less obvious energy efficiency is the length of time a thin client is left switched on. Many enterprises across the globe leave their PC’s on overnight and weekends to allow the update of security patches, anti-virus updates and software releases.
The last point is interesting, because it clearly only really applies to PCs running Windows, with their almost daily patches. Although not immune to security problems, GNU/Linux systems do at least avoid the vast amount of malware that routinely afflicts Windows, with the knock-on benefit that they don't need to be left on overnight for such anti-virus updates.
There's another area where proprietary software leads to less green outcomes than free software, something that is only now being addressed:
Microsoft’s problem is that most of the users remove the whole hard drive (which includes Windows operating system (OS)) before they dump the machine in a ‘re-selling’ shop or ship it to land-fills in China. A computer without an OS is like a car without an engine, there is nothing controlling the hardware and it is effectively non-operational. Therefore, the new owner of the recycled machine has to buy a new license, which can be more expensive than the recycled machine itself, or possibly illegally copy and install an unofficial version that consequently makes Microsoft loose money. By offering a more affordable license, Microsoft makes an effort to avoid the PC being dumped to a land-fill because of a lack of the OS; thus keep the business happily running as usual. Microsoft’s strategy at the same time saves the environment from the toxic materials and energy wasted that it would have taken to make a brand new computer.
Greening IT's more general chapters deal with issues like smartgrids, computing energy efficiency, greening supply chains and a fascinating if slightly blue sky discussion of biomimicry.
One of the great things about the book – aside from its existence in the first place and its wide-ranging contents – is that like an increasing number of such publications, it is being made freely available online. This means that you really have no excuse not to download it and at least skim through it. After all, since our ability to do that so easily and for little apparent cost is part of the problem (as we conveniently forget about the environmental externalities), it's only fair that we try to become part of the solution.