IT in 2009: Greener Pastures?

Think of a data center. Picture rows upon rows of storage racks, all humming away in a warehouse somewhere. Now imagine how much energy is required to keep it running.

The IT industry is notorious for generating a massive carbon footprint. According to an article by Robert Petrocelli of the Computer Technology Review, a single rack of storage enclosures using 6 kilowatts generates 40 tons of carbon dioxide — as much as six 1999 Chevy Tahoe SUVs. Petrocelli added that “most storage systems represent the equivalent of perpetually idling an SUV in the garage on the off chance the owner might want to take a drive."

Further, a report in The McKinsey Quarterly found that the increasing carbon footprint associated with information and communications technologies — everything from computers, data centers and networks to mobile phones and telecommunications systems — could make them the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The report went on to say that “emissions from the manufacture and use of PCs alone will double for the next 12 years as middle-class buyers in emerging economies go digital.”

But there’s hope. New research — also presented in the McKinsey Quarterly article — suggests these very same technologies can be used to make the world economy more energy and carbon efficient. The study found that such technologies could eliminate nearly 8 metric gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2020, which translates to five times the estimated emissions from these technologies.

OK, you might say. But how?

The McKinsey report took a look at the role of technology in five main categories: buildings, power, transport, manufacturing and telecommuting. It then identified areas of savings within each sector and added them all up.

For example, in buildings, more sophisticated technology can monitor lighting, heating and ventilation systems to save an estimated 1.68 metric gigatons of global emissions a year, according to the research.

In the manufacturing industry, “smart controls can make motor systems in factories more efficient,” according to the report. “The use of information and communications technologies to optimize the energy efficiency of motors in China’s plants, for example, could cut emissions by 200 metric megatons a year, as much as the Netherlands produces today.”

In the power sector, the article suggests using sensors in grids to monitor distribution more efficiently. “One grid in India that used information and communications technologies to monitor electricity flows reduced its losses from the transmission and distribution of power by 15 percent,” the authors wrote.

Finally, using technology to manage truck logistics and promote collaboration could reduce emissions globally, the report stated.

When it comes to IT infrastructure itself, there are additional things that companies can do to “green” their businesses. Petrocelli cites an August 2007 EPA report that states the energy consumed by U.S. data centers alone will account for a whopping 2.5 percent of the nation’s total energy consumption in the next five years. So clearly, starting with data centers is probably our best bet.

That said, Petrocelli offered a few options. One is the use of storage virtualization applications that permit aggregation of disparate systems into a universally accessible pool. Data deduplication and wire-speed compression applications are another option, as they can reduce the amount of overall data to be stored. A final suggestion is the implementation of massive array of idle disks (MAID) devices that ultimately can reduce the electrical and cooling requirements for storage. However, Petrocelli warned that MAID devices only work when the underlying on-disk data requirements are compatible.

OK, so IT as an industry has the potential to be very environmentally friendly, you might say. But what does this have to do with me?

“If governments introduce a price on carbon emissions or if energy prices rise (or both), the increased costs of production could be passed on to buyers,” the McKinsey article states.

The good news, however, is that “this would challenge IT managers and companies that purchase IT and telecom equipment in large quantities to rethink the way they manage the demand for and supply of IT services, as well as their use of IT applications,” the article said. “At the same time, companies that make everything from control devices to computer components, software to networking gear, will have a big incentive to invest in energy-saving products and services and thus help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The bottom line for IT professionals is, “Increasing demand for information and communications technologies that promote abatement will create attractive growth opportunities for those companies.”

It looks like 2009 could spell greener pastures for IT professionals with a little creativity.

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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