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A journey into Cebit's heart of Greenness

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If you listened very closely at Cebit last week you could hear a strange sound. Was it the winds of change as the world’s biggest, most sprawling IT show gave it self a verdant makeover and committed itself to the cause of Green IT? Almost. It was actually the sound of the IT industry exhaling as it realised it just might have gotten away with it.

From the off, the organisers declared the theme of this year’s show as Green IT, designating a section of one of the halls as the Green IT Village. The hall itself was on the periphery of the show ground, and the Green IT Village was more of a hamlet, though it did have green carpet and at least four trees. In pots. We spotted lots of bikes on our way from the fairground entrance to the Green IT Village – and three of them were actually being used. We know that because the shuttle bus we spent most of the show in had to swerve around them.

Steve Ballmer anchored the opening day of the show, and demonstrated Microsoft’s green credentials by wheeling a power-monitoring widget it has developed with a nuclear power company. He also cited a study which suggested machines running Vista produced lower emissions than those running XP – though it didn’t seem to occur to him that this was because people liked using the XP machine more.

Presentations on new products by Intel and Cisco laboured the point over power consumption, and how new chip designs were slashing the power draw of computers and other electronic devices, even to the point of delivering the sort of jump in performance needed to cope with the demands for bandwidth and pure file crunching ability, fuelled largely by the explosion of video across the net

In fact, this seemed to be one of the key insights of the show – vendors are reacting to spiralling power demands/and costs, as operators struggle to cope with consumers’ apparently insatiable appetite for YouTube. Yes, that’s right – YouTube is simultaneously driving the destruction of the planet by the IT industry, and the IT industry’s efforts to save the planet.

Green emissions

On the second day of the show proper, Greenpeace weighed in to the debate. From the inside. In recent years the environmental organisation has pitched up at the gates of the show, pitching piles of IT scrap onto the floor to shame attendees into rethinking their attitude to the environment. This time they were on the inside, staging a press conference to highlight their report into how green a sample of PCs, phone, and PDAs were. The panel would have struck fear into the hearts of the IT industry jockeys who sneaked in. Young, committed, multi-ethnic. The sort of people who would have once been haranguing one another in the student union, while the geeks were playing Dungeons and Dragons in their bedrooms.

Greenpeace’s conclusion was that the industry had gone a ways towards cutting power consumption by their products. But they slammed the industry for its policy of planned obsolescence and lack of upgradeability that meant phones had a lifespan of 18 months, and PCs of a few years, together with a lack of transparency about how much energy went into producing and distributing products, or about the true recyclability of kit.

It was a definite must try harder for the industry – but it was clearly a lot better than many were thinking. One exec whispered that he’d been surprised how soft the group went on the industry.

In another way, though, Greenpeace hit the nail on the head. The industry has indeed reined back power consumption.

But was this because the suits had suddenly spotted the damage being done to the planet – possibly via YouTube?

Paying the price

No. A shuttle bus ride away to the IBM stand appeared to confirm this. Sitting amongst soft lighting gently segueing between blue and green a refreshingly frank IBM spokesman said energy consumption had been driven up the agenda because power costs had been driven up the P&L.

As costs had gone up in recent years, financial controllers had teased out the details and started applying it to cost centres – and, unsurprisingly, data centres and other IT, bloated by ever cheaper kit costs, had turned out to be one of the larger of these: “It’s driven by proliferating IT and rising energy costs.” And of course, proliferating IT translates into more YouTube video.

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