Greening the data centre

In the process of digging around the 'greening' of data centres (no, don't laugh), I ran into the boss of Migration Solutions, one Alex Rabbetts. By a weird coincidence, his Surrey office is more or less exactly on the spot where my computer department was in the early seventies, when I first started taking 'sustainability' seriously.

In those days, I was inspired by E F Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful" book. I was further motivated by the country's oil supply shortages, not to mention the fact that my company made stuff from hydrocarbons. And then, to put the tin hat on it, Ted Heath forced us into a three-day working week.

It made me dream of a better world in which we consumed less and thought more about our environmental impact. I embarked on a journey which, due to a number of side-tracks, took 29 years to bring me to a meaningful destination, environment-wise: involvement in a huge sustainability project, primarily with the Science Museum.

During the past fifteen months, I've been applying this experience to the IT world through my work with analyst firm, Freeform Dynamics. We knew from the start that IT was both a contributor to environmental damage and an enabler of savings elsewhere. We also knew from our research that companies are not turned on by doing green things for their own sake. They are primarily interested in money, appearances and regulation.

Alex Rabbetts not only came to the same conclusions himself, but he added an environmental assessment service to his data centre building, consultancy and operations company. If you have a data centre of less than ten thousand square feet, his firm will conduct a fixed price assessment for £2,500, an amount he would "normally" expect a client to recover in three or four weeks. The assessment looks at 120 different factors which have an environmental impact.

He knows that no data centre can be green, but most of them can be greener.

Unlike hardware vendors, whose natural instinct is to get you to replace kit, Migration Solutions is independent of vested interests (apart from its own) and can usually find plenty of improvements without touching the hardware. The company looks at the whole environment, including things like noise, light and waste, as well as power. It triages its findings into things which can be done for nothing, things which require a bit of expenditure and things which can wait until the next refurb'.

He takes into account regulations, both current and upcoming and warns that companies with over, say, 50 racks* could be pushed into the arms of the government's upcoming Carbon Reduction Commitment legislation. Initially, this will apply to any company on half-hour metering that uses more than 6,000MWh of electricity per annum.

DEFRA's website currently claims that companies spending more than £1M on electricity could find themselves subject to this regulation. Both Rabetts and I remember the figure being £500,000 just a few weeks ago. And a quick Google of '500,000 crc' brings up bunch of pages with the old number on it.

It very much looks as if the government has taken the pétard of fluctuating energy prices and hoisted itself with it. Either that or it realised that, at £500,000, its catchment would overwhelm the regulatory system.

But, whether you're liable or not, it might be worth taking a look at Migration Solutions' service. It is pragmatically focused on environmental principles with the by-products of potentially saving money, looking good and being prepared for regulations when they head your way.

*My calculations went something like this:

Assume a rack is 5KWh
Double it to 10KWh for cooling and other infrastructure energy costs
Now multiply by 24 then by 365 to give an annual 87.6MWh
Approximately 68.5 racks would put you in reach of the CRC regulations

I said 50 because your organisation is bound to have non-IT energy bills too.

A breath of fresh air. Eventually.

Many companies have spoken to me of their ambitions to become carbon neutral by some date – usually long into the future. Others talk of cutting or offsetting their C02 emissions in a shorter timescale.

While admirable in their intent, closer examination reveals that they are working to different criteria. They may choose a different base year. They may restrict their emissions by product or division. They may choose to ignore ’embedded’ environmental damage caused by the mining, manufacture and delivery of the components they use. They might conveniently forget the in-use related emissions or ignore the end-of-life consequences.

Governments trumpet this that and the other ambitions for cutting greenhouse gases and they have plans to impose penalties and rewards based on the behaviour of large companies. But they stick to what they think they can (persuade others to) measure. And that, conveniently, is carbon, as I’ve mentioned before. (Sorry.)

What I want to concentrate on here is where the edge of policy lies. When the Carbon Reduction Commitment regulations arrive in 2010, the top 5,000 or so companies will be obliged to account for their direct and indirect emissions (from supplied energy). So all the accounting applies to what happens within the organisation. A company could theoretically dodge penalties by offshoring or selling off the nasty bits of its operations. But, given that the aim is to improve the earth’s climate, this won’t make a blind bit of difference. Indeed, if manufacture is ‘offshored’ then additional carbon (etc) costs will be incurred through transportation.

Once again, I feel I should make it clear that reducing humanity’s impact on the environment is a good thing, quite regardless of whether or not we are actually the cause of climate change. There’s no point in challenging the carbon orthodoxy, but there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the narrowness of its vision and the timidity of its targets. Think of camels and committees.

Fundamentally, I’m suggesting that we accept the regulations but we don’t treat them as gospel. If all we do is conform to the obligations set down, then the world is likely to become a much worse place in environmental terms. The difficulty lies in knowing quite what to do for the best.

Recently, someone at Vodafone was talking about teenagers and young adults changing their mobile phone handsets up to three times a year. They don’t think about embedded carbon. Fashion is far more important. At the same meeting, someone made the astonishing assertion that Formula One motor racing is ‘carbon neutral’.

A mobile phone shop might claim a clean environmental record based on its operations, quite ignoring how the stuff they sell came into being. Or, indeed, where it goes to at the end of its life. Max Moseley has been getting a lot of press lately, but not much with respect to his reforestation initiative in Mexico, something he kicked off in 1995, in close cooperation with Edinburgh University. The FIA Foundation’s news archive from 2002 states that it, "offsets all the carbon dioxide emissions from racing cars in the Formula 1 and World Rally Championship series."

In an excellent guide for businesses called ‘Getting to Zero‘, written by Clean Air – Cool Planet and the Forum for the Future, the authors state: "it seems unlikely that carbon-intensive activities such as Formula 1 motor racing can ever credibly claim neutrality." Interesting that it slipped the word ‘credibly’ in there. And, to be fair, the FIA does not trumpet its neutrality, even if (judging from press coverage) it once used to. This is probably because offsetting is perceived by many as a kind of cheating. For organisations which are serious about genuinely improving the environment, offsetting is seen as a measure of last resort. But, there again, if a business like Formula One has to continue, offsetting is infinitely better than doing nothing at all.

Sticking with Formula One, it would be nice to think that all the teams’ private transport between events is included. But what about all the people who drive to these events? Not to mention the masses of non-team suppliers and support services. I have no idea what’s included in the offset calculations.

And this seems to be a general problem, not just for Formula One. Where does accountability end? Where should it end? The ‘Getting to Zero’ report offers some good answers and plenty of food for thought. It refers to the three types of greenhouse gas emission: Scope 1 is the onsite stuff – direct emissions from company-owned or controlled sources; Scope 2 is indirect emissions, caused by the generation of electricity consumed (actually, it can include other energy sources); Scope 3 includes other indirect emissions resulting from the company’s activities. This stretches upstream to the production, processing and transport of raw materials. It extends corporate emissions to include business travel, employee commuting and outsourced corporate support services. And it includes downstream emissions in distribution, retail, product use and product disposal.

Currently, most concerned companies set their responsibility boundary around the Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, with the addition of business travel from Scope 3. To strive for genuine neutrality, organisations would need to take all of Scope 3 into account. And, in the public eye, this is what they will be measured by rather than by their ability to meet regulatory obligations. If, as so many companies claim, they really want to address climate change, this is the only honest way to do it.

No-one’s making out it’s easy, but the ‘zero‘ guide is a good place to start.

FrEDI: Freeform’s Environmental Discussion Image

We’ve just released a research report called 'Green Computing:
The role of IT in the push towards environmental sustainability
'. While doing the research and validating the findings it rapidly became clear to me that few people are constantly aware of the big picture and their part in it. IT is, after all, just an enabling component in an organisation’s strategy yet, to listen to some people, ‘greening the data centre’ is the start and end of its environmental contribution.

The report examines the broader role of IT and actually gets inside organisations and looks at the drivers for green (and ‘green’, incidentally, isn’t high on the list), cultural issues – including attitudes to IT, where responsibilities for action lie, and how IT can support the organisation’s sustainability objectives. The statistical content was based on feedback from 1474 IT professionals while the interpretation was a combination of experience and consultations following the report’s first draft.

Anyway, the point of today’s post is to introduce you to FrEDI, an illustration which reflects all the areas that need to be considered when participating in an environmental sustainability strategy. The acronym stands for Freeform Environmental Discussion Image although, in retrospect, perhaps ‘Illustration’ would be a better last word. Its purpose is to keep people’s minds open to the bigger picture when discussing and planning their environmental activities.


As you can see, there’s a certain amount of blurring between the various elements of the illustration, this reflects the fact that nothing happens in isolation except, possibly, the determination of the drivers which are best decided at board level, even if some of them are informed by others within the organisation.

You will also notice that the drivers are two-tone – one for internal drivers, such as budget or PR value, the other for external drivers, such as government regulation.

The only way for the drivers to be implemented is through people and they are reached and inspired through leadership. Which, of course, comes from people. Hence the blurring. You may notice that both drivers and leadership fade out at the bottom, leaving the field clear for people, processes and ICT to intermingle and bring about the necessary change.

People are on top of the stack, quite deliberately because nothing at all happens without people. Processes are created and carried out by people and most of them are intimately supported by ICT.

The bottom part of the illustration hints at sustainability in that equipment and resources have to be chosen, acquired, used then disposed of. They are split in two, to reflect the different nature of hardware and resources. Servers, storage, cooling, PCs, laptops, thin clients, mobile devices, printers, etc on the one hand and electricity, paper, ink, toner, water etc on the other.

We believe that it is useful to have an illustration like this to hand whenever debating environmental matters so that the bigger picture is never lost. Organisational and individual benefits will be maximised through harmony and environmental benefits will drop out as a by-product.

Do take a look at the report if this subject interests you. And, of course, your feedback is always welcome.

PS In case you were wondering, the fact it looks like a tree wasn’t lost on us. In fact, it looks most like an Evergreen Oak, but we realised that if we called a tree, then this would lead to hierarchical expectations when, in fact, we’re all in this together.

Green IT: We’re getting there. Slowly.

One of the great things about working for Freeform Dynamics is that we get to find out what’s actually going on inside organisations. How? Well, we are able to survey the readers of The Register; one of the most successful online IT publications in the world.

Recently we’ve conducted a couple of surveys and participated in a four-hour online debate, all around the subject of Green Computing. The surveys attracted about 2,400 responses and the conference hundreds of delegates. These people were all, naturally, interested in the subject and, by and large, involved in IT in some way. But the view that they gave us was enormously interesting and we were able to slice and dice the numbers by geography, type of company, company size and their attitudes to environmental issues.

You can listen to the presentations now so, rather than go over old ground, I thought I’d flick through the stack of unasked questions and deal with a few here. Even though we allowed over two hours for questions and answers, quite a few fell by the wayside.

People were demanding a reduction of the environmental footprint of equipment manufacture. If, as one speaker claimed, 75 percent of a PC’s environmental footprint is accounted for before it is switched on, then it’s clear that the manufacturer has the greatest potential to reduce the environmental impact of its machines.

This would have to include the supply chain – if components are made in China, for example, does this mean the energy is derived from coal-fired power stations? It needs to cover the packaging and transport of the elements and of the finished goods. It needs to take account of the consumption of raw materials, the pollution of the land, the air and the water. And it needs to take account of end-of-life recyclability.

This is all way too complicated for buyers to assess. They need ratings such as the EU Energy Labels on white goods which rank products from A to G.

The environmental impact figures are more or less inverted for servers. According to some, their working life accounts for 75 percent of the overall impact. I would imagine that this refers to energy alone, but it still suggests that attention to usage could pay significant dividends, especially as electricity prices continue to rocket.

Hanging over all the decisions is the big one: cost justification. Many people asked how they can convince their finance departments to cough up for greener but more expensive products.

In due course, environmentally-focused regulations and taxes will start to put pressure on various bits of the supply chain and on a company’s own environmental performance. It would be nice to think that some carrots might be mixed with the regulatory sticks but I won’t be holding my breath.

Some companies, of course, are already seeing a PR value in going green and others, such as Sun Microsystems, IBM and Cisco have found ways of slashing their travel, accommodation and office expenses by adopting various forms of teleconferencing and teleworking. This rather neatly fits a green agenda too. So, in certain types of organisation, simple cost justifications can be made already.

None of this is easy. Prioritising actions is difficult. Some people were worrying about the difference between leaving a computer powered up to read stuff on screen and printing it and powering the machine down. (My vote would be to keep the machine running, but I fully expect to hear a counter-argument.) The data centre consolidation and virtualisation story is a good one from all perspectives. Smarter cooling, too, can be cost justified. But once you’ve done these things, then what?

This is where measures and guidance are sorely needed. I have spent masses of time rummaging around to try and find some decent measures. I’ve asked experts in the field and we’re all agreed: we’re not there yet. Bits of guidance exist – Energy Star, the EPEAT programme and the Greenpeace Barometer, for example. But nothing that makes it easy for people to make sensible decisions.

However, in the UK at least, several organisations – the British Computer Society, the cross-government CTO Council, the Market Transformation Programme and others, are working on various parts of the measurement jigsaw. Some results are expected this year. Organisations like the Carbon Trust and the Environment Agency are trying to keep a handle on what’s going on so that efforts are complementary and not wasted.

Data centres will figure largely early on but the CTO Council will make public a list of topics, prioritised by practicality and the amount of benefit which will accrue. Scorecards, benchmarks, strategy templates and procurement guidelines are all part of the mix.

It’s astonishing that we’ve known about upcoming environmental problems for decades now, but we’re only just beginning to take things seriously. This is why the help and guidance we need is still not readily available. We’re just going to have to use common sense for now and make environmentally friendly choices whenever possible.

ISPs and householders in the front line

Oh dear, oh dear. Seems like our government is continuing its sleepwalk towards another disaster. What do you mean, "which one?" Okay, you have a point. Two things in particular. One is that it has a plan to shrink the police force and get neighbourhood watch members to take over some of its duties. The other, according to the Times newspaper, is to get ISPs to ban users from the internet if they are caught downloading illegal copies of copyright material.

Don’t both of these proposals sound a bit daft? In the first place, I thought we paid the government to keep us safe. Although to listen to recent news, it’s been failing spectacularly in that particular duty. Members of neighbourhood watch are a) probably scared witless to patrol the streets after dark and b) even if they caught someone, then what? The odds of the fuzz turning up in time to do anything useful is close to zero. There’s a disconnect between the government mind and reality.

Now the government is a step closer to asking ISPs to catch people who download stuff they shouldn’t, then to act as prosecutor, jury and judge. How convenient. Be seen to suck up to the entertainment moguls without actually having to do anything more than issue yet another set of regulations.

And what’s the ISP to do? Inspect every single packet that passes through its hands? Divine what the content is and issue warning emails to infringers? If they infringe again, make sure they’re disconnected. And, if they get reconnected and infringe again, ensure they never darken the internet’s doorstep again. This, apparently, can be done by notifying other ISPs of the identity of the guilty party.

It’s mad. Utterly mad. Bureaucracy gone totally insane.

Listen. With a partner I sell software online. Have done for years. We can be fairly certain that illegal copies have been made (despite our rather clever mechanisms for avoiding it). But whose responsibility is it to deal with the issue? Ours.

We try to be nice to customers so they tell others what jolly decent people we are. We try not to rip people off price-wise, although some would argue that we fail in that respect. But they wouldn’t be customers anyway, so what are we losing? Some customers pay us more than once, which suggests our price can’t be that wrong.

It’s up to us to get the business model right so that the decent majority do the right thing. It’s up to us to decide whether to chase commercial-scale infringers through the courts – a horribly expensive process and a distraction to boot.

If the government really does want to prosecute copyright infringers, then it should do it through the normal legal processes. Just as asking householders to catch criminals is mad, so is expecting ISPs to do its dirty work.

Environmentalism: a by-product of making money

E F Schumacher became the first popular environmentalist when his "Small is Beautiful" book was published in 1973. His theme was "Economics as if people mattered" and he introduced the concept of ‘sustainability’ with respect to our exploitation of the planet’s resources.

At the time the book was written, we all saw the planet as a source of raw materials to be plundered at will. It was natural capital which cost us nothing apart from the cost of extraction and, through war or purchase, the cost of securing the land for its exploitation.

We were equally ignorant of waste. The seas were huge and could easily cope with whatever we threw into them, whether directly or through rivers. We were much more aware of pollution of the land we lived on and the air we breathed but, where there was money to be made, we were somewhat less than conscientious.

I don’t remember much about the detail of the book, except that it touched me profoundly. One story related to a manufacturing plant that sucked in river water at one end of the factory and pumped waste water out at the other. Schumacher suggested that the inlet be placed further downstream than the outlet. The idea was simple, but the implications profound.

At the time the book was published, I was running the IT department of a company whose products were made from petrochemicals. Fascinating stuff it was too. The chemists there were happy to explain how they manipulated hydrocarbon chains to create flavours, perfumes and colours.

As a direct consequence of reading the book and the earlier influence of tv programmes like the BBC’s "Energy Crunch", I handed over to my deputy and went off to learn how to communicate, the idea being to then promulgate the ‘green’ message. It actually took me 29 years to return to the subject in any meaningful way, when Michael Moores’ "Stupid White Men" pricked my conscience. Within weeks, and by an astonishing coincidence, I was invited to work on a major sustainability project with the Science Museum.

A huge influence on the museum work was another book, "Cradle to Cradle", written by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and published in 2002. Grossly oversimplifying, the idea was that we can reverse our negative environmental impact by treating industrial waste and end-of-life products as raw material to be used in creating new material of an equal or higher value.

The WEEE directive is a nod in this direction. It requires the recovery of raw materials from discarded electrical and electronic products. The ROHS directive aims to minimise the use of hazardous materials in manufacturing.

Many IT vendors, especially those with operations in Europe, are taking this stuff seriously. But, do you know what? The need to protect the environment is not their primary driver. They do it because they see it as a way of improving their image, conforming to regulations and cutting their costs.