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How big an eco-hazard is IT equipment?

A hard charge to make stick...

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Any legislator expecting major direct gains from little black boxes that sit in the corner feeling vaguely warm, however, is going to be severely disappointed. Faced with the information that a plugged in Nokia charger is costing them a fraction of their annual cappuccino budget, consumers are unlikely to be particularly troubled.

More usefully though, faced with the information that their lightbulbs eat a lot more of the planet than their chargers, they'll be more likely to focus on the things that make a more serious difference. IT and consumer electronics could end up as the poster child of environmental responsibility, as the numbers start to become more public.

With a couple of exceptions. The switch to digital has, in Dr Reger's view, has had a significant effect on overall consumption, and of the appliances on the commission's hit list, the plasma screen is very much the Hummer in the living room.

An old style CRT TV (older readers might remember these) might use about 100 watts, while a sizeable LCD unit could use double that. Plasma displays, however, can tip the scales at anything up to 500-600 watts, so a biggish home cinema system could be costing something in the region of €200 a year.

It's consumption that barely existed ten years ago, and now it's a significant percentage of total domestic power consumption. Nor, comparatively speaking, is standby the big issue here - it's what the things do when they're on that's the problem.

The data centre is an exception that isn't directly addressed by the commission's IT plans, which focus mainly on specific devices rather than collections of them with associated environmental control.

According to Intellect (High Tech, Low Carbon), data centres use 2.2 to 3.3 per cent of the UK's total electricity, with 50 per cent of this being accounted for by cooling systems.

Big iron doesn't do standby terribly well, and even if it's just sitting there doing nothing and waiting for something to happen, a data centre is still going to be racking up a fair old tab. If at zero load you're using 50 per cent of the power you use at 100 per cent load you're doing good, and if you find yourself running at 100 per cent load all of the time (which is where you might deem the operation most 'efficient') then the career-sensitive IT manager is going to get some more spare capacity in there, fast.

At the individual hardware level switching over to greener processors that use less power and generate less heat makes some difference, while smart cooling systems can reduce the level of spend on climate control. Beyond this, consumption reductions can be achieved via the potentially contradictory routes of consolidation and decentralisation.

By viewing server capacity as a centralised resource and employing virtualisation, it's feasible to reduce total server capacity by making 'on-demand' capacity available. Alternatively, smaller, low-noise, low-energy servers that don't require a separate server room could be used by SOHO customers to reduce or eliminate the need for centralised server capacity.

FSC offers both routes - lightweight SOHO servers and units with VMware built-in, while Dr Reger sees virtualisation as a route that leads to substantial savings.

Given the complexity of the issues involved, however, IT managers are more likely to get beaten up about overall IT power bills than they are to get a clear understanding from bosses and legislators about what makes sense and makes a difference, and what doesn't. Big, quick, wins are therefore necessary, and the data centre looks a fruitful place to achieve them.

Consider, though, what it is that makes IT a power villain in the first place. Why, as Dr Reger puts it, is it fair that IT should start from zero? The technology we've deployed over the past 30 years has to a great extent been intended to produce savings, and if we think in terms of carbon footprints, then a pretty substantial IT green revolution could be said to have taken place before it even became fashionable. A little halo-polishing is therefore, possibly, permissible. ®

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