IT Carbon Footprint & the Cloud

Most organisations in the UK recycling sector are focused on carbon reduction. Some already measure carbon usage, though often in a simplistic way. Waste producers are demanding more and more that their recycling partners can compete on minimising carbon usage as well as minimising prices against their competition. Here I provide an insight into the much publicised ‘Cloud’ to see how it can help recycling companies meet their sustainability objectives.

In the UK and other western societies it is generally accepted that the power consumption of IT and communications systems account for between 2-10% of overall emissions. This is a significant cost to a business when it hits the electric bill. On top of that, the energy used in the manufacturing process (Embodied Energy) and that used to recycle the IT equipment at end-of-life compounds the issue. In fact, approximately 70% of the overall energy usage of a typical PC occurs in the manufacturing process.

Many manufacturers have been working hard at reducing the amount of energy consumption at all three stages in the life of IT equipment – manufacture, usage and disposal. When you start to look at the energy consumption of IT equipment, several issues arise. For the typical PC, consumption is affected by our working patterns, use of inbuilt power saving management systems and ambient temperature, which can increase or decrease power consumption significantly. Temperature is an important factor as most power consumed gets turned into heat (and a little noise). The heat is pumped out by an electric fan, which results in in offices either being overheated and requiring even more power-hungry air conditioning, or you find the PCs are heating a room that is already being heated.

Even the software applications we run can create an increase in energy consumption. The harder the software drives the micro-processors the more energy is consumed. Something as simple and as common as an internet search can generate a small amount of CO2 through the processing power it demands.

Reducing the Power

Not surprisingly, the IT world is working very hard to introduce products that deal with this problem. Designing new computers to sell to people is after all what the IT industry has been doing well for 40 years. But when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, many companies are turning to a thin client/server infrastructure in order to run smaller, cheaper and less power-hungry terminals that are running off a centralised server. These thin client computers have very little processing power of their own, meaning all the real carbon-emitting data crunching for many users can happen in a more controlled environment around the server.

Another important consideration for controlling emissions is effective power management. Research has shown that IT can account for around 10% of electricity used in a modern office. It is definitely worth bearing in mind that in standby mode, a typical desktop computer may use less than 10 watts per hour as opposed to more than 200 watts per hour if it’s engaged in heavy use. Similarly, you need to keep an eye on all those monitors, printers, scanners and other peripherals that will also use a lot less power in sleep mode. I often hear people say that turning PCs and peripherals on and off uses more power and wears them out quicker. That is just tosh. Modern computers are much more resilient than that. Not turning off or putting to sleep your IT equipment is tantamount to flushing money down the toilet.

At a more advanced level, while most PCs allow low power settings, in a client/server network model the processes running on the computer can prevent the low power settings from taking effect. This can have a dramatic effect on energy use that is invisible to the user. Everything may appear to be in idle mode, particularly if the screen has gone into standby mode, but the reality is that network processing is actually keeping the terminals awake.

In fact, it is estimated that the carbon footprint of company data centres will more than triple between 2002 and 2020 and this makes them the fastest growing contributor to the IT sector’s carbon emissions. An obvious solution is to consolidate corporate IT set-ups into huge shared infrastructures managed by specialist ‘Cloud’ computing providers.

Microsoft on the ‘Cloud’

The benefits of the Cloud are fundamentally around removing the hassle and frustration related with managing your own IT infrastructure. Your company has its own skills and managing servers probably isn’t one of them. A Cloud deployment takes this issue away and leaves you with a set of desktops and laptops that simply connect to your applications via standard connections.

However, the Cloud also offers a number of green benefits that will help you significantly reduce your carbon footprint. A company dedicated to housing massive server farms that support lots of businesses can make a big difference in terms of emissions and power usage. At Microsoft, for example, they always locate our server farms at places with renewable power sources, such as hydro and wind, etc. They also move processing areas around the farm in line with the sun to ensure servers are always working in the coolest part of the day.

So, running your enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other office systems such as Exchange and CRM system in the cloud can really reduce your energy consumption but the real green benefit comes from the increased efficiency the system would give you. Better route management would result in running fleets better and ultimately fewer journeys. An ERP system that is always in line with your business means you will run better, slicker, faster, greener and, perhaps most importantly, more profitably.

Conclusion

There is much discussion in the industry right now about calculating the actual environmental impact that widely adopting cloud-based solutions would have. One major piece of research has shown recently if all US companies with 100 to 100,000 employees switched from on-premise email servers to a corresponding cloud solution, the reduction in carbon emissions would be equivalent to permanently removing around 100,000 passenger cars from the road. And that’s just email and just in the US. If you stretched that out to cover more applications across the world, the potential power savings are immense.

All the research and finding point to the fact that Cloud computing has the potential to make some huge and important changes to the IT industry. It can help to reduce costs, improve efficiency and operational flexibility, as well as contribute to the long term health of the planet. Cloud computing has been shown to reduce carbon emissions by 30 to 90 percent for major business applications today and this will only continue to improve as the technology evolves, particularly with companies like Microsoft so heavily committed to it. Adopting cloud computing will deliver inherent business benefits and will also play a crucial role in making IT more sustainable by significantly reducing energy consumption.

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