Post: Sustainable Computing: An Emerging Priority for IT

a modern server room with green servers

Sustainable Computing: An Emerging Priority for IT

In last month’s Global Climate Strike, some six to eight million participants advocated for the reduction of human-created factors that are contributing to climate change. Workers at some of the world’s largest tech companies joined the walkouts to pressure their companies to reduce the environmental damage caused by their activities.

Your organization is probably already promoting environmentally-friendly initiatives, from changing to LED lighting, promoting telecommuting, purchasing recycled products, perhaps even building LEED-certified offices.

But the IT department in your company may also have opportunities to promote sustainability. For example, when purchasing new hardware or software, you can take into consideration how it meets your organization’s sustainability objectives.

Of course, you have enough to do just keeping your project on schedule. But including sustainability as a requirement for a project can benefit your organization (and the environment) in several ways:

  • It’s proactive. Environmental regulations are only going to get stricter in the future. Putting in place processes and aiming to meet targets ahead of deadlines will make compliance easier in the future.
  • You can reduce costs. One 2014 study found that organizations that are proactively planning for climate change secure an 18% higher return on investment.
  • It improves engagement with shareholders, customers and employees – especially with younger generations. A 2015 Nielsen study concluded that “brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today’s youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share but build loyalty among the power-spending Millennials of tomorrow, too.”
  • It’s another opportunity to differentiate your company from competitors.

One way that IT can promote energy savings is by moving from on-premises data centers to the cloud. Estimates are that data centers consume as much as 2 percent of the world’s electricity. And that of course includes cloud data centers. However, because the cloud consolidates equipment and scales servers on an as needed basis, instead of maintaining the maximum necessary, it can deliver energy savings.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Northwestern University developed an online tool called CLEER to help measure savings when moving from on premises to cloud. This is an older tool, but it may be helpful to put some metrics behind your cloud migration. There’s also a pretty helpful case study based on this. (The TL; DR: moving from on-premise to a cloud instance provides the most significant energy savings.)

Major cloud vendors (AWS, Oracle and Microsoft) provide information on their commitments to sustainability. And they have projects that go beyond powering the cloud with solar and wind. For example, Facebook has a trial in Denmark that recycles heat energy to nearby homes. Amazon is doing the same for their Seattle office space. Microsoft is working with energy suppliers to create an autonomous energy grid, using the cloud and predictive analytics to optimize energy distribution. IBM promises better space utilization and lower energy use with what they call cognitive buildings.

Migrating from Legacy Software

Your organization doesn’t have to be a tech giant to have an impact. For example, most data centers house servers that do nothing beyond supporting legacy applications. This could be something like an AS 400 supporting Crystal Reports. So a project that retires legacy machines delivers a definite energy consumption savings. The Vertatique website has some good information on the energy used to run and cool a server.

Laptops use less energy than older desktop machines, so moving from desktop-based to browser-based applications can provide additional savings. Not all users can eschew desktop apps, however. This blog has some simple ways to cut desktop energy consumption for those users.

Software Challenges

It’s not just a matter of hardware, either. Software choices should include consideration of energy savings. Blockchain-based cryptocurrency Ethereum, for example, has been criticized for the energy consumption from data mining.

You may have heard of the blockchain application CryptoKitties. In 2017 trading in the kitten blockchain reportedly “had a volume of $3 million, overloaded the entire Ethereum infrastructure with several ten thousand kitties in the transaction queue, likely causing the electricity consumption of a middle-size city through the power-intensive cryptographic computation required for each transaction.” Version Two of the blockchain, Ethereum PoS, is supposed to reduce energy consumption by as much as 99 percent.

It’s a reminder that software can have an impact. Over on the SQLServerCentral blog, Andy Warren wrote a post on the energy costs of routine IT activities like overprovisioning servers in case of spikes. Comments like this one from Ed Wagner call attention to the fact that poor coding practices also waste energy, “Bloated HTML and XML lead to wasted bandwidth. Junk code leads to wasted CPU and memory. Improper data types, XML and poor decisions all lead to wasted disk space.” The Webkit blog also has an informative post on how websites can be designed to reduce CPU usage.

Materials Disposal

Another part of any green initiative is the responsible dispose of old devices to prevent toxins like lead and mercury from ending up in landfills. In addition to reducing the number of desktop-based applications, organizations can try to prioritize the use of responsive applications that can be run on lighter devices like tablets or phones. Business can also partner with organizations to responsibly recycle legacy equipment. For example, this year, Dell Computers committed to recycling electrical components from discarded tech.

Reporting and Analytics Can Play a Role

Finally, as with every other aspect of business, reporting and analytics can help. When purchasing an analytics platform, consider how it can also be used to track operating expenditures for energy usage. If your project publishes physical content, like reports or forms, consider replacing them with digital versions that can be printed only as needed. And audit the digital materials your applications produce, to replace unnecessary ones with self-service reports, and lessen the likelihood that you are running millions of unnecessary SQL queries.

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