A journey into Cebit's heart of Greenness
Straight down the YouTube
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.
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
What? Vendors haven’t suddenly found a social conscience and decided that they’re the ones with the smarts to save the world? Well, maybe. As the IBM spokesman said, in Europe at least, the rise in energy prices comes against a public background of debate about meeting Kyoto protocol targets. But largely it is down to the fact that energy costs and, in some areas, supply problems have got IT and finance directors sweating.
One of the problems, though, is that comparing vendors' respective scores on energy consumption – never mind the other green issues – is rather difficult, due to a lack of common terminology.
We took to our feet to make a meeting with Joseph Reger, CTO of Fujitsu Siemens Computers, who expressed frustration that the industry can’t agree a standard definition of power consumption that it could then slap on kit in the form of a sticker, so customers could make an informed choice.
In fact, Reger has been pushing the idea  for at least 18 months. Reger also pointed out that IT accounts for just a few per cent of total energy consumption, while admitting that every little helps.
Green sticking plasters
We thought long and hard about this, as we took another swing on the shuttle bus back to the Green IT Village, for a chat with Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a non-profit sponsored by a raft of tech heavy hitters, including Intel, Microsoft, Google and eBay. You know, the sort of people who run those really big data centres.
Climate Savers was at the show to push its agenda in Europe. Its agenda is almost elegant in its simplicity: reduce energy consumption by computers by 50 per cent by 2010 by improving the efficiency of power supply units and making sure customers use the full range of power management tools available to them. The organisation targets vendors and corporations, as well as consumers. Vendors commit to making products that match its criteria, while businesses commit to buying kit that meets the organisation’s criteria.
Surely this is the sort of organisation that would love some kind of sticker program? Er, no as it happens.
As the organisation rightly points out, the complexity of IT systems, with their infinite combination of components and software, makes a sticker programme for PCs quite a different proposition from one for a fridge or washing machine, which does one job, on its own, at a predictable load.
As Allyson Klein, whose day job is at Intel points out: “From country to country there are different definitions of what makes an energy efficient PC.” She adds, helpfully, that the US and EU-backed Energy Star standard – surely a sticker program in itself - doesn’t actually address power management, only energy efficiency.
Magnus Piotrowski, who covers environmental and technical regulations for Lenovo, from Germany, added that a first step might be for standards organisations to give some guidance. “Then it will become easier to talk about the same thing.”
Who'll set next year's agenda?
We were left wondering whether the brains trust behind Climate Savers has burned itself out. After all, these are the people who between them have invented the microprocessor, reinvented internet search and advertising, created the online auction market, and shown how you can stymie government regulation for years. Surely they can come up with a few algorithms that can allow you to compare Apples and pears.
We thought about this all the way back to the bus-stop, right through the train station and even as far as the airport. This, of course, is the dilemma for the IT industry, on energy consumption, never mind those other issues exercising the earnest young brains of Greenpeace.
Reacting to customer demand – or at least giving the impression it is - is something the IT industry does comparatively well, certainly on a vendor by vendor level. Building an industry consensus and getting customer in on the act? That’s really tricky, but do-able up to a point. But inviting an outside party in to oversee things is always a recipe for trouble in the vendors’ eyes. But that appears to be, inevitably, what is going to happen. The European Union is already cracking heads on putting standards in place for data centres.
IT Inc could congratulate itself on pulling off quite a show in Hannover last week. But it seems inevitable that by next year or the year after the likes of the EU will be the ones directing where the green paint and hemp carpet needs to be deployed. Unless, that is, we all stop watching YouTube. ®