Green IT: We’re getting there. Slowly.

One of the great things about working for Freeform Dynamics is that we get to find out what’s actually going on inside organisations. How? Well, we are able to survey the readers of The Register; one of the most successful online IT publications in the world.

Recently we’ve conducted a couple of surveys and participated in a four-hour online debate, all around the subject of Green Computing. The surveys attracted about 2,400 responses and the conference hundreds of delegates. These people were all, naturally, interested in the subject and, by and large, involved in IT in some way. But the view that they gave us was enormously interesting and we were able to slice and dice the numbers by geography, type of company, company size and their attitudes to environmental issues.

You can listen to the presentations now so, rather than go over old ground, I thought I’d flick through the stack of unasked questions and deal with a few here. Even though we allowed over two hours for questions and answers, quite a few fell by the wayside.

People were demanding a reduction of the environmental footprint of equipment manufacture. If, as one speaker claimed, 75 percent of a PC’s environmental footprint is accounted for before it is switched on, then it’s clear that the manufacturer has the greatest potential to reduce the environmental impact of its machines.

This would have to include the supply chain – if components are made in China, for example, does this mean the energy is derived from coal-fired power stations? It needs to cover the packaging and transport of the elements and of the finished goods. It needs to take account of the consumption of raw materials, the pollution of the land, the air and the water. And it needs to take account of end-of-life recyclability.

This is all way too complicated for buyers to assess. They need ratings such as the EU Energy Labels on white goods which rank products from A to G.

The environmental impact figures are more or less inverted for servers. According to some, their working life accounts for 75 percent of the overall impact. I would imagine that this refers to energy alone, but it still suggests that attention to usage could pay significant dividends, especially as electricity prices continue to rocket.

Hanging over all the decisions is the big one: cost justification. Many people asked how they can convince their finance departments to cough up for greener but more expensive products.

In due course, environmentally-focused regulations and taxes will start to put pressure on various bits of the supply chain and on a company’s own environmental performance. It would be nice to think that some carrots might be mixed with the regulatory sticks but I won’t be holding my breath.

Some companies, of course, are already seeing a PR value in going green and others, such as Sun Microsystems, IBM and Cisco have found ways of slashing their travel, accommodation and office expenses by adopting various forms of teleconferencing and teleworking. This rather neatly fits a green agenda too. So, in certain types of organisation, simple cost justifications can be made already.

None of this is easy. Prioritising actions is difficult. Some people were worrying about the difference between leaving a computer powered up to read stuff on screen and printing it and powering the machine down. (My vote would be to keep the machine running, but I fully expect to hear a counter-argument.) The data centre consolidation and virtualisation story is a good one from all perspectives. Smarter cooling, too, can be cost justified. But once you’ve done these things, then what?

This is where measures and guidance are sorely needed. I have spent masses of time rummaging around to try and find some decent measures. I’ve asked experts in the field and we’re all agreed: we’re not there yet. Bits of guidance exist – Energy Star, the EPEAT programme and the Greenpeace Barometer, for example. But nothing that makes it easy for people to make sensible decisions.

However, in the UK at least, several organisations – the British Computer Society, the cross-government CTO Council, the Market Transformation Programme and others, are working on various parts of the measurement jigsaw. Some results are expected this year. Organisations like the Carbon Trust and the Environment Agency are trying to keep a handle on what’s going on so that efforts are complementary and not wasted.

Data centres will figure largely early on but the CTO Council will make public a list of topics, prioritised by practicality and the amount of benefit which will accrue. Scorecards, benchmarks, strategy templates and procurement guidelines are all part of the mix.

It’s astonishing that we’ve known about upcoming environmental problems for decades now, but we’re only just beginning to take things seriously. This is why the help and guidance we need is still not readily available. We’re just going to have to use common sense for now and make environmentally friendly choices whenever possible.

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