Green IT's next steps

New software and hardware will help tame the energy beast

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 realizing 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 in Hoboken, N.J. 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 utilizes 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.

Stevens Institute's Paul Winstanley
Paul Winstanley at Stevens Institute of Technology expects an emerging technology called cognition detection to help IT recognize and react to energy demand.

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 recognize 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.

Consider, for instance, the way Wi-Fi sends out omnidirectional signals, even if there's no demand required from every direction. "I'm radiating power needlessly, and I can never recoup that power," Winstanley says. In the future, technology will be able to direct Wi-Fi signals only where and when there's a demand.

Inside the data center

Equipment in the data center is also ripe for improvements. Increasing the efficiency of servers is one way to do that, says Mark Monroe, the former director of sustainable computing at Sun Microsystems Inc. and a founding director of The Green Grid and now a sustainable-computing and energy consultant in the Denver area.

Already manufacturers are making systems that accept power at higher voltage, which cuts down on energy consumption, says Rich Lechner, vice president of energy and environment at IBM. Power enters a data center at a high voltage, typically 480 volts, and needs to be stepped down, usually to 208 volts or lower, before it goes into the computing devices. During that process, energy is lost and heat is generated. That, in turn, drives up cooling needs and thereby increases demand for power.

"There will [still] have to be some step-down, but we're working on systems that will allow you to accept up to 480 volts of power, so there's less step-down required," he explains.

Emerson Network Power in Columbus, Ohio, makes power distribution units designed for new high-density power servers that can handle 480 volts of power. Using industry averages and internal research and modeling, Emerson found that by eliminating step-downs, a data center with 1,000 servers could save $40,000 annually through reduced energy costs.

Dell's Paul Prince
Paul Prince, CTO in the Enterprise Product Group at Dell, says, "At some point we're going to stop running on electrons and switch to light," but he doesn't expect this change to happen anytime soon.

Emerson officials point out that the company itself is saving energy this way. It built a new corporate data center last year and expects to reduce its energy bill by 1% by using 240-volt power distribution instead of the traditional 208-volt.

Solar power and other innovations

Even more green-IT innovation is coming. Tiernan says solar-powered computers, already used in limited circumstances by some, could become more mainstream, and computers that scavenge the environment for ambient energy could possibly hit the market some day. Also on the horizon, according to Lechner, Tiernan and others, are devices with computer chips that use light rather than wired electric connections to transmit data, a change that could dramatically cut the amount of energy used in IT.

As promising as all of that might sound, these technologies aren't exactly right around the corner, cautions Paul Prince, chief technology officer in the Enterprise Product Group at Dell Inc. in Round Rock, Texas.

"We've seen some of that out there, but the reality is you're not going to be able grab ambient power anytime soon. It will take you weeks to charge your notebook. That sounds good, it's just not anywhere close to having a measurable impact," he says. "But at some point we're going to stop running on electrons and switch to light."

However, IT leaders don't need to rely on innovations in the machines themselves to take the next steps toward slashing energy consumption. Changes in IT strategies could deliver on that goal, too. Cloud computing could help cut energy costs by locating power-hungry gear outside the data center. IBM's Lechner notes that as much as 25% of a company's energy supply goes to networking devices like switchers and routers.

Data life-cycle management can help

But new corporate strategies and mechanical improvements to the devices themselves will do only so much to keep demand in check. Even with all of those kinds of innovations, Monroe says energy consumption (and the corresponding costs) will continue to go up.

"You'll never see power demand decrease, because there's always an increase in computing demands," he says.

Some IT leaders are considering ways to make a difference, though. In addition to designing applications so that they consume less memory and other resources, some IT executives are starting initiatives focusing on data compression and more intelligent data life-cycle management.

green IT

Consider, for example, that a midsize business might have 20 to 30 copies of the same Word or PowerPoint document. "If you can eliminate redundant copies, then you can impact the amount of storage you need -- and the energy required for that storage -- without impacting business," IBM's Lechner says.

Most companies aren't at that point yet, he says. Most are still in the early stages, tackling the easiest targets that require smaller investments of time and money. But for those who are ready to move on, there's a growing list of initiatives that are ripening into the next generation of green IT.

Mary K. Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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