Green Machines: Making the corporate landscape more friendly

Posted on 23 May 2012 by Malcolm Wheatley

Making the corporate IT landscape more environmentally friendly is simpler than you might think, reports Malcolm Wheatley.

A data centre powered entirely by vegetable off-cuts. A desktop computer that draws less power than a low-wattage light bulb. A high-powered computing cluster that breaks new records in energy efficiency, eliminating costly air-conditioning units. Server farms cooled almost exclusively by ambient air from outside.

Science fiction? Most definitely not. From data centres powered by waste biomass to low-power computers drawing just seven watts, each is a readily observable example of hard, solid, IT fact – thanks to innovative technologies and recent advances in the art of the possible.

“Incredibly, data centres consume something like 2% of the world’s entire electricity supply”

Some would say, not before time. For whichever way you look it, corporate IT isn’t green. Incredibly, data centres consume something like 2% of the world’s entire electricity supply, with networks and desktop computers adding to the load.

To take just one example, Google – notoriously secretive about such things – is estimated to use 0.01% of the world’s entire electricity consumption, with some 900,000 servers drawing some 220 megawatts of power.

Indeed, points out Kari Baden, managing director of advanced infrastructure at IT services provider Dimension Data, it is estimated that the amount of electricity consumed by data centres worldwide grew by 56% between 2005 and 2010, and that data centres use in the region of 2.2% 3.3% of Britain’s total available grid power.

“According to Gartner, 12% of all data centre expenditure is currently consumed by energy related costs,” he says. “Energy costs are increasing by 16% every year according to McKinsey and are expected to be the fastest rising costs for data centres as companies begin to expand the IT infrastructure and support business growth.”

And for environmentalists, green IT isn’t just about power consumption. Short technology lifecycles don’t help, either, with end-of-life hardware disposal raising troubling issues of landfill and poor recycling as managements continually upgrade equipment to take advantage of new capabilities. Wasteful use of paper, toner cartridges and other consumables don’t help the green cause, either.

David Angwin - European Director of Marketing, Wyse

“You’re running Windows XP or Windows 7, with your favourite applications, and the look and feel is identical— but you’re consuming just a small fraction of power previously required.”

David Angwin,  European Director of Marketing, Wyse

Refurbish, not replace

So what can manufacturers do to make their IT operations greener? What tools, techniques and technologies will reduce their environmental footprint?

Talk to experts, and it’s clear that opportunities to improve a business’s environmental impact aren’t difficult to find. Better still, the impact on the bottom line is generally positive.

How so? Because green-friendly practices such as using less power, upgrading equipment rather than ripping it out and replacing it, and using less paper and fewer consumables handily cut costs as well as boost a business’s environmental credentials.

That said, it’s difficult to be too prescriptive about the potential for going green, says Tony Rooke, head of the sustainability services practice at IT services firm Logica.

“A lot depends on how computing-intensive a business is,” he notes. “Steel manufacture, for instance, might be lot less computing-intensive than, say, aerospace. Paper and printing usage, too, varies from business to business, and industry to industry.”

Nevertheless, a handful of core approaches to green can go a long way. Instead of sending old equipment to landfill, for instance, recondition it, or repurpose it. Use an old server to support office desktops for example. And simply selecting ‘economy mode’ when printing documents can literally pay dividends. Logica itself, adds Rooke, reckons to have saved over a hundred thousand pounds through such means.

“Data centres use 2.2% 3.3% of Britain’s total available grid power—and 12% of all data centre expenditure is consumed by energy related costs.”

Kari Baden, Managing Director of Advanced Infrastructure, Dimension Data

Data centres

Inevitably, though, the biggest contribution to a greener environment – not to mention lower costs – will come from reduced electricity consumption. At a stroke, reduced power loads translate into fewer greenhouse gases, and less depletion of resources such as coal, gas and oil. In the UK about two thirds of our electricity is generated by burning coal and gas in power stations, which every year releases millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Where to start? As data centres consume significant amounts of power, it’s logical to start there. Data centre cooling is a major drain on power. But with a little thought, cooling costs can be cut dramatically, says Roger Keenan, managing director of co-location data centre operator City Lifeline.

“Ten years ago, manufacturers of cooling equipment designed it for low capital cost, because that’s what the market wanted,” he says. “Now, they’re designing for energy efficiency: variable speed drive fans, new efficient hi-tech refrigerants, and ‘free air’ cooling. Better still, even though they’re no longer designing for price, the cost has gone down anyway.”

And cooling equipment manufacturer Hitachi has gone one step further: a ‘Natural Circulation Cooling’ system dispenses with the need for refrigerant pumps, and harnesses waste heat from servers instead resulting in energy savings of up to 50%.

“The heat from the server vaporizes the refrigerant, causing it to rise. When cooled, it condenses and falls. Utilising these rising and falling streams, the system is able to circulate the refrigerant without an externally powered driving force,” says Ian Blond, head of Hitachi Europe Data Centre Solutions. “It can be fitted to new and existing data centres and servers – whether rear door, rack type, or hanging units – and also saves money by reducing maintenance costs.”

But getting rid of waste heat more efficiently isn’t the only way to reduce the power consumed by cooling. For cooling, of course, is proportionate to the number of servers in operation in a data centre – and how energy-efficient those servers are. But typically, many data centres contain multiple servers, each one used for just a fraction of its capacity.

Hence a move to cut cooling costs by reducing the number of servers in operation. And, as with cooling itself, there’s more than one way to skin the cat.

‘Server consolidation’ supports the green agenda by merging together server workloads onto fewer physical servers, each more highly loaded. ‘Server virtualisation’, meanwhile, converts multiple real-life physical servers into ‘virtual’ servers, running on one fully-utilised large server.

Better still, just as cooling equipment has been redesigned to take account of the newly-prominent green agenda, software too can be re-written to use less power, says Miguel Ferreira, a researcher at the Amsterdam-based Software Energy Footprint Laboratory.

“Simpler, unsigned low-precision variables, more use of caches, fewer open XML interfaces – such tactics can do a lot to cut power consumption,” he says.

Finally, when data centre power consumption has been cut to an irreducible minimum, consider the potential for acquiring that power from greener sources. A number of niche suppliers – as well as the ‘Big Six’ majors – offer electricity for business users, explicitly derived from renewable sources: hydro-electric, wind farms, and solar, for instance.

Better still, for cloud users, there’s the prospect of a data centre exclusively powered by biogas. Infinity Martlesham, in Suffolk, reckons to be the UK’s first truly carbon free data centre, says its chief marketing officer Nigel Stevens. In the heart of the UK’s sugar beet and arable crop region, the data centre is powered entirely by electricity derived from burning methane generated by processing vegetable off-cuts and waste.

Broader IT environment

Low-energy data centres, hardware recycling, and reduced paper and toner usage aren’t the only ways for a manufacturing business to go green. While data centres consume a big chunk of the overall electricity used for computing purposes, desktop computers and high-performance computing clusters – for the increasing number of manufacturers that use them – also contribute.

“It’s difficult to describe high-performance computing as ‘green’: it’s all about becoming greener—and that is possible.”

Julian Fielden, Managing Director, OCF

In the case of high-performance computing clusters, manufacturers have to be realistic, warns Julian Fielden, managing director of OCF, a specialist high-performance computing system integrator which numbers computing-intensive manufacturers such as Caterpillar, Tata Automotive, AstraZeneca, Lola Cars, and GlaxoSmithKline among its customers.

“It’s difficult to describe high-performance computing as ‘green’,” he notes. “It’s all about becoming greener – and that is possible.”

As an example, he points to a recently-built server and storage cluster at the University of Durham, which delivers a peak performance of 25 teraflops that uses 60KW less than its predecessor, despite running seven times faster. As a result, the university has been able to remove three air-conditioning units from the facility housing the cluster.

The humble desktop computer, too, offers an opportunity to significantly reduce power consumption, thanks in large part to a technology called desktop virtualisation – similar to server virtualisation, but this time it is the business’s desktops that are being virtualised.

The energy savings are significant, says David Angwin, European director of marketing for Wyse, the terminal specialist which has pioneered the technology. By doing the ‘heavy lifting’ of desktop computing on fast, energyefficient servers, and using low-power desktop devices to drive monitor screens and connect to mice and keyboards, a desktop computer drawing a conventional 70-100W can be replaced by one drawing just 3-15W – equivalent to a low-wattage light bulb.

“You’re running Windows XP or Windows 7, with your favourite applications, and the look and feel is identical. But you’re consuming just a small fraction of power previously required,” he notes. “Processing is so much more efficient when undertaken on a server, in a virtualised environment.” Roll it all together, and prospects for green IT are looking better than ever, sums up Timo Stelzer, vice-president for Green IT at enterprise software giant SAP.

“Green IT initiatives can powerfully reduce not only energy consumption, but also the total cost of IT ownership,” he enthuses. “And the basic recipe for a greener IT infrastructure isn’t complicated. Start with consolidation and decommissioning of legacy systems, virtualise your system landscape to increase utilisation, and use software which is energy efficient.” What could be simpler – or greener?