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Cooling IT down

Cooling IT down

Heeding the call for green IT.

The information and communications technology sector is in the spotlight with the need to reduce carbon emissions. After all, it can take a fair share of responsibility for contributing to climate change and other deleterious effects on the environment. Analyst Gartner estimates carbon dioxide emissions related to the operation of servers and PCs account for 0.75 per cent of the annual global total, and that’s before factoring in emissions generated by cooling the boxes.

Add this to the emissions generated by telecommunications networks and IT’s contribution to the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas load is “probably in excess of 2 per cent”, says Simon Mingay, UK-based research vice president with Gartner.

That’s a big number, he says, “for what is essentially a single device”. In fact, emissions tied to that device, the computer, are comparable to the level of greenhouse gases being produced by all the world’s airplanes as they crisscross the skies.

A differentiating factor

An environmentally responsible outlook fits into a more general picture of emerging awareness of “corporate social responsibility”, says Stephen Timperley of Wellington’s Starfish Consulting. This is already proving a differentiating factor in attracting both customers and investors, he says. The generation now coming into management would sooner buy from and invest in “socially responsible” organisations. That includes environmental responsibility, says Timperley.

The sums are not small: There are more than $2 trillion dollars of investment funds specifically seeking responsible companies.

However, he acknowledges, there is no agreed-on measure of “corporate social responsibility”, and none specifically directed to ICT.

Measures of the attitude to ICT “greenness” in the user marketplace are also uncertain, but there does appear to be an emerging receptiveness to green ideas.

A survey conducted this year by Sun Microsystems among New Zealand and Australian companies reports 60 per cent of respondents (915 of 1533) as saying eco-responsibility was either “very important” or “important” to their organisation. A further 26 per cent said it was moderately important. Only 2 per cent of respondents said eco-responsibility was not important to their organisation.

Forty-six per cent of respondents say they “recycle” their hardware. But one central government agency that participates in a recycling scheme, the Department of Conservation (DOC), admits to having no idea to the eventual fate of the recycled hardware. “We send PCs to a [local] company that gives them to schools,” says Alison Fleming, DOC chief information officer. “We don’t know where they might go after that first owner; but we don’t just throw them away.”

DoC was an early adopter of virtualisation technology, to economise on the use of physical servers and their attendant power and air-conditioning costs. “We’ve been doing it for about four years,” says Fleming.

Competitive difference

Two outstanding figures in the Sun survey are the 51 per cent of respondents who “occasionally” and the 14 per cent who “always” take the environmental policies of their supplier into account when purchasing ICT equipment. This creates a double incentive for ICT manufacturers to develop equipment that puts less strain on environmental resources; purchasing policies mean it becomes a point of competitive difference.

Technology providers are aware “environmentally friendly” credentials will increasingly be demanded in tenders, says Channa Jayasinha, chief technology officer of the Ministry of Economic Development (MED).

This is the case at MED where Jayasinha says, “We are looking to make sure all tenders we issue have a sustainability clause.”

Those in the forefront or who have responded to this include Dell, HP and Lenovo, which are working towards providing “green” PCs. Konica-Minolta is making multi-function printer-scanner units that it claims impose less deleterious waste on the environment.

Dell’s efforts to recycle used computer equipment are well known. A free recycling day for home and small business users in New Zealand netted 55 tonnes of equipment last year, which would otherwise have been bound for landfill, says spokesperson Paul McKeon.

The company is also making moves in design, packaging and power consumption to minimise environmental impact. “We are looking at using fewer materials and putting the emphasis on recyclable materials,” says McKeon.

Green Grid

Dell is participating with other ICT manufacturers in the Green Grid, an initiative to seek industry-standard best practice methods to approach the problems of environmental impact, while not compromising the drive to increased processing power, reliability and serviceability.

It also offers customers the opportunity to contribute in the price of each PC purchased to a tree-planting “carbon offset” effort run by a third party, carbonfund.org.

Lenovo has comprehensive programs for minimising the environmental impacts of our operations and products, says Mike Pierce, director of environmental affairs.

Lenovo is a board level member of Climate Savers Computing Initiative (CSCI), led by the World Wildlife Fund, and whose members include Google, Intel and other leading IT manufacturers and users. CSCI targets 50 per cent reduction in computing equipment’s power consumption by the year 2010, and seeks commitments from other suppliers and users globally to support this goal.

“Lenovo has committed to comply with the energy efficiency objectives in our product offerings, and in the products we use internally,” says Pierce.

But “greenness” often works in the opposite direction to the continued drive to put more processing “grunt” into a smaller space, Jayasinha points out.

MED is now using tightly-packed “blade” servers, which generate considerable heat in a very small space, increasing consumption of power by the cooling systems.

Fortunately, MED does not consider this so much its own problem, as the servers are hosted at a data centre. “It’s hard to control what goes on there,” he says. To a certain extent “you need to buy what’s available. We don’t want to run old inefficient servers for the sake of environmental responsibility. It’s a juggling act.”

MED is starting to make its own accommodations at the front end, replacing its CRT screens with energy-saving flat panel screens, and insisting that all these are Energy Star compliant. Work is going on to enforce appropriate power-saving settings on screens so they revert to screen-saver mode or switch-off entirely when not being used. Employees are encouraged to switch off PCs overnight and other equipment such as dedicated printers when leaving the office.

PCs are on a five-year replacement cycle. At the end of their life they are sent to Fujitsu for disposal.

Increased use is being made of the ministry’s five videoconferencing suites (two each in Wellington and Auckland and one in Christchurch) rather than traveling. The feasibility of desktop videoconferencing is being assessed.

MED will be the administrator for the emissions trading scheme, which will allow credits for greenhouse gas emissions to be exchanged between organisations nationally and input into an international trading network.

Jayasinha acknowledges that a lot of the ministry’s green incentives are preliminary. “We’ve only been doing this for three or four months.”

A virtuous circle

There are often sound, practical reasons for going green in ICT operations; one of the most obvious targets is power saving, which reflects comparatively quickly in a saving on the ICT budget.

As Jayasinha points out, vendor and customer can enter a virtuous circle on this front; the customer perceives financial savings to be made and therefore chooses low-power equipment with fewer demands on the environment. Seeing environmental clauses in tender documents, the vendor changes its own manufacturing parameters. Other customers then find a lot more green ICT equipment available and are persuaded to examine its advantages.

Vendors, of course, are heavy ICT users on their own part and see the financial benefits in increased greenness in their own operations.

“This is much more than a wink and a nod to ecology, this is about economics as much as ecology,” says Brian Wilson, chief technology officer market development, Sun Microsystems. “When 41 per cent of Fortune 500 companies tell us power and space are big issues and some 25 per cent of their IT budgets are consumed for power, we can do something about that.”

He cites Sun’s commitment to ongoing eco-technology product and development that include SunRay thin client systems that consume less watts of power than regular PCs, and Project BlackBox, a virtualised data centre that he says is designed to be 20 per cent more energy efficient than traditional data centres.

Wilson points out Sun has also taken steps to lower its carbon emissions in its offices through its OpenWork programme, which allows workers to work wherever is convenient on any given day. Last year more than 14,000 employees, almost half of its workforce, worked regularly from home or elsewhere. Wilson says half of the offices in Sun are “dark at any given time” when these spaces are not being used or the staff are in the field.

IBM, on the other hand, has announced it is consolidating its once-sprawling IT infrastructure. This initiative, dubbed ‘Project Big Green’, consolidates some 3900 applications onto approximately 30 System z mainframes.

Making the switch

Meridian Energy is one user enterprise that took a more holistic approach towards energy efficiency. Its new head office on Wellington’s Queen’s Wharf was designed from the beginning as a “green” building. It has wireless and fixed-line IP telephony, integrated with an audio-visual system, allowing easier videoconferencing and collaborative working with shared documents within and between offices. This will reduce the need for travel and hence the impact on the environment, says Meridian CIO Rob Bolton.

Seventy per cent of the staff will be equipped with laptops and they will also use mobile phones integrated with their ‘desk phone’ extensions, enabling greater mobility around the building. “A laptop uses less energy than a desktop,” says Bolton, “and by reducing the number of phones [through not having mobile phones and landlines] we’ve cut overall consumption there as well.”

Meridian’s servers have been relocated into a single data centre “and they have been moved to more energy-efficient technology” in the form of HP blade processors. The data centre is not in the Queen’s Wharf building, but at a remote location he declines to disclose for security reasons.

Meridian worked with IBM, Cisco and Australia-based PIVoD Technologies for the infrastructure. PIVoD supplied its SimPhonE system, which allows the environmental systems of the building such as lighting and blinds to be controlled from an IP phone or a touchscreen and automatically powers down equipment when not in use.

Environmentally sensitive

The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) is approaching the question of environmentally sensitive ICT on two fronts. These are through its own operations and by contributing to emerging guidelines for government as a whole, says Steve Dixon, manager of the ministry’s sustainable business group.

The ministry has made significant changes on a proportion of its recent tender requests, expressing a preference for suppliers with sustainability policies. Particular focus is placed on the safe disposal of used computer equipment.

The other two prongs of its attack are reduced power consumption and minimisation of packaging. The latter begins with requiring suppliers to take their packaging back for recycling. Most of the major IT manufacturers are participating in a “working group on voluntary stewardship” which tackles the disposal of equipment and packaging and will encompass standards for recycling operations, to make sure the product is responsibly dealt with when it passes further down the disposal chain, says Dixon.

On the energy front, MfE already requires that its PCs and terminals meet the Energy Star standard for efficient power management.

Cooling down

Trucking company Mainfreight has consolidated many of its Auckland operations into a new super site. This is a 18,580-square metre building, tailored to meet green options, and was an excellent opportunity to construct a greener data centre as part of the site.

“There is a big emphasis on recycling as well as reducing power use for both processors themselves and the cooling,” says IT infrastructure manager Dave Hall. The centre uses HP C-class blade arrays that put out a lot of heat for a small space, but have a cooling system built into the racks. “That brings the cooling closer to the servers so they run cooler [for less power utilisation].”

APC helped design the infrastructure. Results in power saving have not yet been evaluated in the six months the centre has been running. “We’ve got a rough idea that savings have been about 20 per cent,” says Hall.

“One salient point is that we worked out the racking space we needed and built the walls of the data centre around that,” to minimise the amount of air that needs to be circulated for cooling, says Mainfreight CIO Kevin Drinkwater.

Virtualisation has played a large role in reducing from 15 “live” servers to four, he says. Clearly there is a trade-off involved here, since each server is doing more work and hence generating more heat in a smaller space. Only 1 per cent of the heat generated by a server is attributable to actual processing, says Drinkwater and manufacturers are striving to improve that ratio.

Lighting in the data centre has also been minimised. “It’s mostly a lights-out operation,” says Drinkwater.

“We didn’t start out to be green,” he adds. “We started by trying to do things the right way, to make them as efficient as possible.”

With additional reporting from Divina Paredes

Sidebar:

Tools to reduce your contribution to global warming

Power conscious chips: When it comes to energy efficiency, AMD has dominated a two-horse race with Intel, increasing the number of cores in its Opteron chips while holding power consumption steady. Intel also markets its Xenon line of energy-efficient server processors. It recently announced imminent production of chips using a new insulating material that consumes less electricity, generates less heat and delivers faster processor speeds.

Energy-efficient servers: Thermal engineering — once an afterthought — has become a critical limitation for servers. Manufacturers such as IBM, HP and Sun Microsystems have taken steps to redefine system design and improve internal blower and fan technologies. IBM touts its System z mainframe as a power-efficient alternative to high-density x86 servers for Linux applications. Sun, meanwhile, claims its Niagara servers use half the power and offer three times the performance compared with competitors’ machines.

Better cooling and power supplies: Power supply vendors such as APC and Emerson and HVAC manufacturers including SprayCool and Cooligy (which is owned by Emerson) are developing products targeting global warming. These include systems using carbon dioxide for cooling (in place of more harmful refrigerants), direct-current power supplies (more efficient than converting alternating current from the electrical grid) and more efficient in-chassis, in-rack, in-row cooling products.

Green design: Server manufacturers and IT service providers have ideas for more efficient data centre designs. HP is working on a next-generation, modular data centre prototype incorporating virtualisation and a closed-loop cooling system, among other features. Sun Microsystems is touting its Project Blackbox, a virtualised data centre built into a shipping container and optimised to deliver energy, space and performance efficiencies.

Financial incentives: Customers of Pacific Gas & Electric are eligible for a rebate of up to US$4 million for virtualisation projects that consolidate servers. The California utility also offers cash rebates for the installation of other energy-efficient products such as servers and HVAC equipment. The US Environmental Protection Agency is studying what other incentives might encourage businesses to adopt eco-friendly technologies.

Stephanie Overby

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Tags global warmingcarbon emissionscorporate social responsibilityDatacentergreen ITcarbon footprintenvironment

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