Green computing picks up momentum

Companies can improve the environment and save money at the same time

The publication of the authoritative Fourth Climate Change Assessment Report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, combining the conclusive data on global warming from the work of hundreds of scientists worldwide, leaves no room for doubt that global warming is ongoing and that it's being driven primarily by human activities.

The report goes beyond documenting the problem to examine a range of actions and technologies, from sequestration of carbon dioxide to encouraging use of more efficient light bulbs in homes, that can mitigate greenhouse gas creation in the atmosphere.

Green computing fits well into that range of actions. Furthermore, David Cottingham, global practice manager at Dimension Data and advocate of green computing, argues that environmentally sound computing makes economic sense in the data center. In the interest of full disclosure, Cottingham says that Dimension Data doesn't sell green computing products or services as such, although some of its offerings can be used to decrease a client's environmental footprint.

Focus on energy efficiency

While environmentally responsible computing includes controlling pollution in the manufacture and disposal of computer equipment, its focus is on energy efficiency, which has implications for controlling operating cost as well as improving the environment. Reports indicate that as much as 30% of corporate operating budgets go to power costs, and the corporate data center is an intense power consumer.

"Companies spend more on power to run a server over its lifetime than they do in capital expense to purchase it," Cottingham says. Obviously, in an era when the byword is "do more with less," IT organizations need to do all they can to control energy costs.

Unfortunately, Cottingham says, the green computing quiver is missing some of its arrows. While Sun Microsystems is selling more energy-efficient servers, this is really just a first step by one major vendor. Most equipment manufacturers are only starting to move in this direction. With this direct path closed for now, CIOs need to focus instead on increasing the efficiency of the equipment they already have.

"One area of low-hanging fruit is in server virtualization," Cottingham says. By using virtual server technology to combine several computing environments on one server, thus cutting the number of boxes running in the data center, IT can cut its power usage while saving the capital expense of buying more computers.

Other areas that offer environmental as well as economic benefit today are Information Lifecycle Management, database de-duplication and data archiving to reduce the amount of storage on the floor. Again, companies start these projects mostly to save money by controlling the amount of storage on the data center floor, but from the environmental standpoint, "the fewer disks spinning the better," Cottingham says.

Two-edged sword

Blade servers are a two-edged sword, he says. On the one hand, by sharing resources -- particularly AC to DC power converters -- among multiple server blades, they can save a considerable amount of power compared to the same number of traditional servers.

But the huge increase in cooling per square foot they require can eat that energy gain up quickly. Direct-attached cooling that delivers cold air directly to the blades and avoids redistributing warm air into the server racks can improve that, but it remains a careful balance between energy saved vs. energy expended.

The huge concentration of heat blades can create in extreme cases has triggered discussions of water cooling. While this isn't harmful in itself and can be an improvement where water replaces less environmentally friendly liquids, Cottingham says it's an indication of a deeper problem -- the generation of too much waste heat in the computer center. More heat means more power wasted. The better solution would be to have a new generation of computing technology that uses less power.

Companies are also employing a variety of lighting strategies, from solar windows to motion sensor lighting control, to reduce the cost of lighting data centers and make "lights out computing" a literal reality when no humans are in the room.

These measures are only half the solution, however. The computer itself still remains essentially untouched by environmental issues. Lower-power processors and peripherals could directly reduce a data center's power consumption and cooling needs, because heat results power consumption. To pick just one component, "We use a lot of power just converting AC to DC," Cottingham says. Certainly, we could do better there."

"Users are putting pressure on the vendors to improve power consumption," he says. "That really is one of the most important things IT can do for green computing. We need to really push the vendors for more energy-efficient solutions for the next generation of computing."

Bert Latamore is a journalist with 10 years' experience in daily newspapers and 25 in the computer industry. He has written for several computer industry and consumer publications. He lives in Linden, Va., with his wife, two parrots and a cat.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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