‘If you don’t know what the cost is then it’s impossible to work out where to save’
ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS is a key part of modern culture, from the focus on recycling to increased awareness on the effect human activities are having on the planet. For its part, technology has been both a blessing and a curse for the green movement: on the one hand it’s dramatically increased the amount of power consumed, plus issues created by the disposal of electronic goods once they’ve outlived their usefulness.
The prerogative for IT companies to take cognisance of their impact on the environment has been sharpened by recent events in SA, where electricity cuts have highlighted the need to rein in power consumption on the technology front.
One problem facing many IT organisations is they have no idea how much power the infrastructure under their ambit actually consumes. That’s because, traditionally, electricity was supplied by and paid for by a facilities organisation, and IT simply had to make sure those providing it knew how much they were going to need.
However, the spectre of increasing electricity costs has put almost every company into the mode of cutting consumption wherever possible – something that doesn’t mean cutting usage in IT departments but being asked to deliver more services than ever without increasing it.
Maureen Baird, business development and solutions executive at IBM SA, says there are two key components in calculating how power is consumed in any company. First, the IT infrastructure itself. That’s composed of servers, storage, network switches, desktops, notebooks and monitors. Second, the support infrastructure, which keeps everything running, including uninterruptible power supplies and air-conditioners.
She says the distributed environment – desktops, printers, notebooks and the like – hasn’t received the kind of attention it should have. However, considering that display units alone account for 15% of power usage in IT it’s something companies are now paying attention to.
There’s a move away from simple energy efficiency towards measuring the broader carbon footprint of technology. “That’s especially important when you consider IT accounts for 2% of the global carbon footprint,” Baird says. She adds the best way for any company is to conduct an energy assessment and use that to look for potential savings. That could be as simple as buying LCD instead of traditional CRT monitors when it’s time to replace them, or even replacing servers in the data centre.
The problem that many companies face is that the chief information officer doesn’t know how much power the IT under his control consumes. Baird says recent research shows 26% of CIOs have no idea what the cost of running their equipment is. “If you don’t know what the cost is then it’s impossible to work out where to save.”
The tragedy is the power IT has to measure and monitor – which has long been used in other company sectors – isn’t being leveraged in the fight to cut back on energy usage. “IT has a key role to play in creating a holistic view of energy consumption in an organisation – not just the use of power by IT equipment but the complete spectrum of usage throughout the organisation.”
Once that usage pattern has been established it’s possible to track the company’s carbon footprint. That benchmark will also allow companies to enter into carbon trading, where they can get other companies to buy their carbon credits – the reduction in a company’s carbon footprint – which could offset costs associated with a power reduction programme.
Baird says there’s currently a gap in that market as there’s no legislation in SA stipulating companies should cut their carbon footprint. That makes the issue a bit murkier, as it’s unclear whether companies that cut their carbon footprint before legislation – apparently in the works – would receive credit for any reduction. “There will always be a gap between doing the right thing and complying with legislation.”
The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) surveyed the top 40 JSE-listed companies last year. Only 57% of responding companies provided quantitative data on their greenhouse gas emissions, against 79% of respondents in the CDP’s global FT500 survey. The percentage of SA companies disclosing emission data was lower among the high impact sectors at 50%. The problem with those figures is they aren’t audited, so their accuracy will remain in doubt until a system is put in place to do so.
However, Baird says a recent survey of international CEOs put climate change on the top of their agendas and that presents an opportunity for CIOs to add value to a company by taking charge of that process and in adopting a greener stance.
She says IBM worldwide has committed to cutting power usage by 50% over the next few years while also scaling up the computing power of its infrastructure by a factor of 10. The trick here isn’t just using
more efficient technology but also using virtualisation technology to ensure servers are more efficiently utilised. Baird says the classic mainframe computer tends to run at 90% to 100% constantly while servers running Unix are much less efficient and Windows servers only average 10% to 20% utilisation.
That said, it takes pretty much the same power to run a server at 10% as it does to run it at 90%. So by creating lots of virtual servers it’s possible to increase the available computing power without installing lots of new equipment.
Ben McDonald, client products brand manager at Dell South Africa, says green IT is a massive subject and that energy efficiency is simply one part of the equation. “When you’re talking about how environmentally friendly technology is, you have to look not just at how much power it consumes but also the whole lifecycle of the product. By that we mean everything that goes into the manufacturing, running and disposal of the product.”
McDonald says as part of Dell’s drive to be the “greenest IT company” it’s put a number of initiatives in place to ensure it complies with the standards it’s put in place internally and mandated by laws worldwide. The most relevant piece of regulation is the reduction of hazardous substances regulation (ROHS) implemented by the European Union: companies have to stop using specific substances, such as lead and mercury, in the manufacture and construction of their equipment.
MacDonald says that’s required Dell to monitor all its suppliers and audit all its manufacturing processes to ensure the end product complies with the relevant standards.
At the end of a product’s life the issue of recycling becomes just as important and while some countries legislate that companies take back and recycle their products that’s not the case in SA. However, McDonald says Dell offers its clients recycling for free but charges other organisations for the service. That’s conducted on a centralised basis throughout the organisation.
However, if recycling IT equipment is to thrive in SA it will require Government intervention and the mandatory recycling of products. McDonald says the industry as a whole has been more proactive in driving green technology and issues about the “greenness” of technology are increasingly appearing on tenders.
The need for awareness of the impact of the technology we use has been made more acute by the power shortage issues SA is currently experiencing. However, companies paying for diesel to power standby generators may result in them becoming more aware that electricity isn’t simply a magical utility but requires the destruction of natural resources to achieve it.
Conduct an energy assessment and use this to look for potential savings. Maureen Baird