The Benefit of Green Information Technology in Guernsey

October 25th, 2010 by Robert Childs

Within the last few years people have come to realise that green issues are important if we are to have a planet left for our next generation. So somehow we have to find ways to reduce the amount of energy we consume, both at home and in the workplace that will reduce our carbon footprint and slow down the effects of global warming. One simple way to reduce our energy consumption is to reduce the amount of energy the island consumes to power the Information Technology (IT) required for its offshore industries.

So how does IT impact our carbon footprint?

Globally, aviation is the biggest polluter in terms of carbon produced, however what is little known is that IT (servers and desktop PC’s) come a very close second.

Whilst there are many schemes to offset carbon emissions caused by travel, currently only The Itex Group locally are promoting a similar scheme to its clients for the electricity their servers consume.

In Guernsey, we probably already use more IT equipment per head of population that anywhere in the UK except of course in the City of London, so we need to be thinking ahead, be creative and innovative before we get caught out.

Tucked away on industrial estates around the island are a number of secure data centres, where the computer servers used by the States of Guernsey, the finance industry and more recently the e-gamblers are sited. In these facilities computer servers typically sit one on top of each other mounted in a rack, where they are fed with power, air conditioning and communications. And in terms of the carbon footprint they generate, each server is equivalent to an SUV doing 15 miles to the gallon.

Data centres in Guernsey are booming because they are now understood to be an energy efficient way to concentrate computing resources where economies-of-scale are fully maximised.

If you consider a Bank might typically have two racks of servers to conduct their day-to-day business, one e-gambler recently bought 80 racks in one shot. Whilst it is difficult to get exact figure there are probably a thousand racks of servers in Guernsey, of which 670 are for the e-gamers i.e. far more that all the other industries combined.

The sheer scale of business growth and its associated energy consumption (carbon emissions) suddenly becomes apparent.

Put simply, these data centres consume about 15% of all the electricity required by the island during the day and roughly 23% at night. While this is a very significant percentage, the use of data centres is very much a green (and indeed economic) solution for businesses. For businesses, servers hosted in data centres will generally place a smaller drain on power resources than servers hosted within the company.

To understand what this means in ‘real-money’, take a look at your own electricity bill and find the number of kilowatt hours used. The conversion from kilowatt hours to kilograms of carbon emitted is to multiply the kilowatt hours figure by 0.056. So if your business used 10,000 kilowatt/hours per year (i.e. the energy consumption of a typical small house), then you are producing 560 kilograms of carbon. If you were then required to offset this carbon on an ongoing basis, you would need to plant 509 Sycamore trees.

So in terms of being green, servers and desktop computers are renowned for being energy hungry. Almost 99.99% of the energy put into a computer chip is wasted as heat. You could say the same of a traditional tungsten light bulb – but look how that has now changed. But the problem for IT is that for every kilowatt of energy put into power servers, yet another kilowatt has to be consumed to constantly cool it.

A room full of servers in a data centre would quickly go into thermal shutdown unless the air cooling facility it required was as large as that needed for a small hotel. That’s the problem with the traditional ways to power and cool our IT; first of all we are paying for power to run our IT and then were paying again to have it cooled whilst all the hot air it has generated is then vented to the environment.

Whether located in a data centre, or an office, clearly computers use a lot of energy, but I doubt you will see the utilisation of a processor move much above 5%. Imagine your car parked up with the engine running all day and night, only used briefly to drive to work and back, whilst the rest of the time it’s just sat idle burning fuel. Unfortunately, this is a characteristic of today’s IT and how it is used and deployed – it’s hugely inefficient.

If you could combine the processing requirement of 20 individual servers running at 5% into one server running at 100%, imagine the cost saving and the benefit to the environment. This method of deploying IT is known as virtualisation and it is now considered to be the computer industry’s largest and most prominent solution for the reduction of energy consumption worldwide.

Some organisations have already made this leap, whilst others are still considering its effectiveness. One thing that will accelerate adoption of this technology is the rising cost of electricity. In the past IT managers never saw the electricity bill because it was not important. Now with increased cost of supply and the desire to reduce our carbon footprint, everything has changed.

But why stop there?

Consider the average office, full of desktop PC’s all consuming power and throwing out heat. Most of these PCs will run little beyond word processing, a web browser and email applications; perhaps using less than 15% of their processing capacity whilst being idle for the rest of the time. So why not run all these PC’s virtually on a central bank of servers located in a data centre. A virtual PC based solution only consumes 1/10 the power of a physical PC. So take away the PC and the air conditioning overhead is again further reduced.

If we put this into context, a business with 100 PC’s each running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year could expect to reduce its electricity bill by something in the region of £8,000 per annum. Looking at it from an environmental perspective, if the same organisation replaced each physical PC with a virtual one, it would mean planting 4000 fewer trees per annum in order to offset the carbon produced. This figure is absolutely staggering. Also virtual desktops do not have to be shipped in a cardboard box all the way from Malaysia!

So what can we do to offset the problems caused by under-utilised IT?

If each of the islands businesses was willing to put an item on their Board Meeting agendas to reduce the electricity consumption associated with their IT to reduce the bottom line costs and the carbon generated, think how much greener both the organisation and the island could be with such minimal effort.

However to achieve a significant impact across the island, every organisation needs to adopt this mind set, not just a select few. One could of course do nothing for the next few years- unfortunately China is not. Like the UK, China is a net importer of the fossil fuels it requires to power its economy, which means that the global fight for energy security will remorselessly drive up energy prices. Even though our use of nuclear power will minimise the impact of this trend, the cost of all power will continue to soar until only a select few can then afford it.

The link between increased energy consumption and man-made climate change is clear, as is the link between increased energy consumption and cost. Tackling the carbon footprint of IT is simply good business practice.

Once you adopt the mind set of trying to optimise the energy used by IT, monitoring your success whether in carbon or pound Sterling becomes as easy as looking at your next electricity bill.

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