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The Greening of Information Technology

The corporate data center has never been environmentally friendly. Fortunately, that is slowly starting to change.
a corporate data center
The corporate data center is becoming a greener place.
Photo: David Lohner

The corporate data center and all that goes with it — servers, desktops, laptops and palmtops for mobile workers, and printers — has never been environmentally friendly. Consuming inordinate amounts of energy to both power and cool racks of servers, eating up forests of paper, and finally releasing tons of toxic waste when it all reaches end-of-life, Information Technology has, as far as the environment is concerned, may have caused as many problems as it’s solved.

Fortunately, that is slowly starting to change. Consider a few of the ways Information Technology is finally beginning to reduce its impact on the environment.

Almost paperless

Remember the promise that the advent of computers would bring about the paperless office? Not only did that not happen, but computers made it possible to consume more paper, faster than ever before.

Enterprise Content Management systems put the breaks on some of that unnecessary waste. Originally designed to bring order to document chaos, as well as to secure confidential information, ECM delivers the added benefit of greatly reducing print volumes.

Oracle, the database people, reports that one of their customers, Emerson Electric, saved more than a half-million dollars in printing costs and $158,000 in shipping costs using Oracle’s ECM application. This translates into 3,754 trees, 1,395 barrels of oil, and 278,627 pounds of carbon emissions.

Of course, even with an effective ECM system, there are still occasions when users need to handle paper. In many offices there’s one printer for every three or four people, kept busy churning out reports, e-mail, and presentations, most of which are never read.

Read Data Center Management: Your guide to efficient Data Center operation from Amazon.

To get those documents into an ECM system, along with printed and hand-written forms, calls for either data entry clerks on workstations, or scanners and optical character recognition software. All of these devices use electricity, even when idle.

However, some use less than others. Forrester Research reports that an average copier, two printers, and a fax machine use about 1,400 kWh per year. In contrast, a multi-function device that can replace all of these can do the same job using only half as much power.

Virtually green

Within the data center itself, conservation efforts now often focus on virtualization. Tools like VMware, Oracle VM, and Microsoft’s Hyper-V make it possible to run multiple server instances on the same physical hardware.

Further, during off-peak hours, virtual servers can be migrated to even fewer physical servers, so the now idle physical servers can be temporarily shut down. When the load increases, the physical servers are turned back on and the virtual servers are restored to normal operation. Advanced virtualization management utilities can be configured to do all of this automatically.

As an example of how effective this can be, one insurance company using VMware was able to streamline its data center from 92 physical servers down to 8, with a corresponding savings in power and cooling requirements.

Of course, 90 servers or 9, computers still require electricity to run and still produce heat that must be removed. Fortunately, manufacturers are making improvements here as well.

Blade servers — essentially stripped down computers that plug into a backplane for connectivity and shared resources — may use less power than an equal number of conventional servers in large configurations.

Servers can also be built with lower power memory modules, hard drives, and processors, all producing less heat and requiring less cooling.

Further tweaking includes cooling fans that dynamically throttle up or down based on power demands. Heavily loaded servers draw more power and produce more heat, so the fans spin faster to provide more cooling. When the load decreases, so does the fan speed, saving power.

Remote tools allow administrators to manage entire banks of servers from a central location, so it’s not necessary to keep monitors turned on. In fact, it’s often possible to simply turn off all the lights and close the door to the server room while one or two administrators manage the system from their desks.

Data center administrators aren’t the only ones who can work remotely. Information workers, a growing segment of the population, can now interact and do their jobs without going into an office. Sales reps often work from home or on the road using only a cell phone and a laptop. Phone conferences, video conferences, and web-based meetings have greatly reduced the need for business travel, saving the environment from all the associated green-house gas emissions.

Green to the End

Of course there’s still a huge number of computers and associated hardware in use. In the past when those devices became obsolete they’d end up in landfills, releasing contaminates like arsenic, mercury, and lead, as well as even nastier compounds like hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Here as well manufacturers are cleaning up their act, removing toxic substances from their products before they ever reach the consumer. Even the packaging has been adjusted to reduce cost and environmental impact.

Significantly, all of the ways we’ve looked at for reducing IT’s environmental load also contributes to the bottom line. Whether it’s reducing paper usage, minimizing electricity consumption, or avoiding unnecessary travel, companies that make the investment in green IT reap measurable savings and higher profits.

Simply put, green IT is good for business.

Jules Smith is the Principal of LightningStrike Studios, a professional communications firm providing marketing content, corporate communications, and web site design. He writes across a wide range of topics, specializing in renewable energy and information technology.