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Can we 'green up' the hunger for data centre electricity?

El Reg talks to Fujitsu sustainability chief Alison Rowe

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Interview My starting position on the subject of "green" IT is one of extreme skepticism.

I've been around this industry since the 1980s, and in that time I've heard every argument the IT business has put forward to explain its environmental friendliness, whether it’s smart grids, or reduced resource consumption by cutting down on paper, or eliminating unnecessary travel.

Yet by last year, according to Frost & Sullivan, data centres consumed two per cent of the world’s electricity. The IT industry rises on clouds of CO2 the best it can manage is not “green IT” but “slightly less hideously polluting IT”.

So when Fujitsu released its publication Green IT: The Financial Services Industry Benchmark a couple of weeks ago, and I spoke to Alison Rowe, the company’s global executive director, I was skeptical from the start.

El Reg: At the rate that data centre electricity consumption is growing, isn’t it a bit rich for us to apply the “green” tag to it?

Rowe: The industry hasn’t addressed the data centre yet because we focused on the quick wins first – PC power management, shutdown policies, cleaner printing technology, desktop virtualization and so on. But the next step has to be data centres, yes.

The industry has a low level of measurement at this stage, and the financial services sector is the most IT-intensive energy user, so that’s where we decided to report first. It also provides the opportunity to get the most benefits of scale out of “green IT”.

Putting metrics in place to get a baseline is one of the key things that had to happen.

El Reg: Why haven’t we measured this well in the past? What’s difficult to measure?

Rowe: Where are the assets that consume the energy, and where are the assets that we can get the most improvement? Power-user-effectiveness – PUE – is the metric that applies in the data centre. And in Australia, another area that stands out is the life-cycle performance, the contribution of procurement and disposal [to energy usage].

The lowest score in life cycle was 29, and the highest was 91, which tells us that some companies in financial services are doing well, but others haven’t looked at that question yet. E-waste legislation will help boost performance there.

An interesting difference between Australia and the UK is that here, the best-performing companies were those with 5,000-plus employees. In the UK, the best-performing companies were those with 500 to 1,000 employees.

That tells us it’s a more mature market in the UK. It’s a more mature market … there’s more regulation there, and there is a carbon price in the market, which has made energy consumption matter to smaller companies.

America is different again. The thing that drove America’s focus was the global financial crisis, which drove everybody to look at efficiency. The US is doing well on end user measures, but its weakest area was data centre efficiency.

El Reg: I would suppose that America, being the first country to create giant super-data-centres, also has a bigger legacy of older, less-efficient data centres.

Rowe: That’s why, for example, India was the best-performing country in data centres. They have newer infrastructure and technology.

El Reg: Does Australia also have a problem in its power sources? American companies like Google seem more willing to put data centres in remote places near facilities like hydro generators, whereas we keep putting data centres in metro areas that are mostly coal-powered.

Rowe: There are different technologies in different areas – I think Australia is about to start looking at how to put the renewables into the data centre. We [Fujitsu] are looking at this ourselves … in Japan, we’re looking at solar power, in the US, hydrogen fuel cells.

There is an emerging trend to look for more efficiency. In the transition to cloud computing, we have to look not just at the infrastructure, but where we get the energy from.

El Reg: People keep saying that energy efficiency pays for itself, but people still seem to go for cheap-and-dirty. Does being green really pay for itself?

Rowe: Yes, it does. But there’s a combination of different technologies in different locations. Typically now, we see a customer who is moving from a conventional legacy data centre to a sustainable centre will reduce emissions by up to 40 per cent, but will get cost savings of up to 50 per cent.

El Reg: If the financial services industry is the dirtiest industry, it’s also the easiest one to improve. Where do you think the “greening” of the data centre should go after that industry?

Rowe: There’s a massive opportunity in government. The Australian government has made huge improvements in the last 18 months, with its whole-of-government sustainability plan.

Government has a big opportunity to influence industry – through scale and its purchasing power.

El Reg: However, as government exits older, low-efficiency data centres, that’s going to create an undesirable secondary market – those data centres’ prices will fall.

Rowe: To some extent, yes.

Education is another opportunity sector – the next generation of students are demanding more electronic services, but also demanding improvement in how that’s delivered.

We will be releasing another paper to cover more countries, and more industries. What we want to do is continue to create this awareness, and to identify the opportunities for both cost and emission savings. ®

Note: Fujitsu’s report, Green IT: the Financial Services Industry Benchmark, is available here.

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