Next steps in green IT

Where next for energy efficient business?

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It's been several years since 'green IT' became a tech buzzword, and now the concept could advance to the next level with a combination of technology improvements and changes in corporate behavior.

The notion of a more energy efficient IT operation isn't new, of course. But so far, many green IT initiatives have focused on low-hanging fruit, and some experts say companies have more work to do. According to the Climate Savers Computer Initiative, energy costs typically represent about 10% of an IT budget. "More companies are realising when they get visibility into the electricity bill that they have to do more," says Patrick Tiernan, executive director of the nonprofit.

One of the green innovations on the horizon is technology that cuts down on the amount electricity wasted by IT equipment, says Paul Winstanley, director of energy initiatives at Stevens Institute of Technology. A staff member in the office of the provost, Winstanley seeks ways to increase energy efficiency in campus facilities through improvements to infrastructure, including IT equipment.

"IT is very, very inefficient in how it utilises energy," he says. Computers, servers and other equipment are powered nearly constantly, even when not needed, generating huge amounts of wasted electricity. Moreover, much of the electricity that devices such as PCs take from the wall is wasted, converted to heat, Tiernan says. "We want to focus on the energy efficiency of the box," he adds.

Power management software that puts unused PCs into low-power sleep mode can save $50 to $80 in energy costs annually per computer, and buying Energy Star-rated computers can ensure you're getting an efficient machine. Energy Star 5.0 computers have an efficiency of at least 85%, compared to 80% with Energy Star 4.0, Tiernan says. Some PCs are more than 90% efficient.

But vendors are making equipment that is even more efficient, and smarter, too.

Up next, Winstanley says, are computers that can boot up very rapidly after being turned on. That capability could save energy because a computer that's off, most experts agree, is more efficient than one that's in sleep mode, and users wouldn't be as reluctant to turn their machines off if they didn't have to wait so long for them to come back on. However, there's no consensus on how much power would really be saved if more people turned their computers off more often.

Another promising new technology is what's known as cognition detection. Still a year or more away, cognition detection systems will recognise and react to demand, cutting energy consumption by automatically powering up to meet demand and scaling back once the demand has abated, Winstanley explains. "The whole area of cognition detection is going to be one of the big areas within IT, whereby there will be some substantial power savings gained," he says.

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