Monday, 30 January 2012

Green IT... The Problem or the Solution?

ICT - Information and Communications Technology - plays an ever-increasingly important role in today's society, in the home and the business world alike. We can't live without it. Yet the IT sector is both environmentally damaging and a driver for green solutions. So is it a help or a hindrance?

Technological advancements in the IT sector have marked some hugely important steps in the way we interact with each other and how we get the latest info on the things we love/need. Where on earth would we be without smart phones these days, or what about Facebook and Google?!

ICT is vital to the way we live our lives. But a study by Gartner found that the IT sector accounts for around 2% of global carbon emissions... doesn't sound like much? That's equivalent to the aviation industry! It's a significant amount, and it's only going to grow as more data centres are needed to power this massive industry. Here's an interesting video which deals with the negative impact of the internet:

The funny thing about the IT industry is that, even though it might be a significant contributor of carbon emissions, it is also unavoidably a part of the green solution. Green IT is the upcoming trend, but IT in general can also help promote greener lifestyles, especially in businesses and organisations.

So what does green IT refer to? There are quite a few different aspects. Firstly, there have been significant improvements in the way data centres are managed, making them more energy and cost efficient. There are various approaches to this; from installing better cooling systems, to switching from older 'rack' servers to 'blade' servers (saving a significant amount of space in the centre). Alternatively, but closely linked to data centre efficiency, is the up-and-coming approach of virtualisation. I'm no techie, so I cannot give you the down and dirty explanation of this (Wikipedia has a helpful article), but in simple terms: it reduces the amount of hardware you have to use and power (by using virtual servers).

There have also been many important advances in IT which - although not necessarily green - have promoted more environmentally-friendly practices. I refer particularly to teleconferencing improvements, reducing the need for business travel and associated environmental impacts (not to mention business finances and productivity of workers). Developments like Cisco's Telepresence, which I find quite exciting, really make you feel that talking to people on the other side of the world as if they were in the same room as you is increasingly possible. Well, it's been possible for a while, but these kind of technological developments make it so much more easier to interact - would you rather an awkward call with a 3 second time lag (we've all been there...) or a room when you can walk and talk, and react not only to people's voices but movements and expressions, all without the 3 second time lag.

So where does that leave the IT sector? Is it a help or a hindrance to the environmental movement? Personally, I would say it's a help - or perhaps I should say, it will be of significant help in the future. At the moment, I don't believe enough focus is put on the benefits of green IT. And despite there being improvements in the efficiency of the sector, there are also huge developments occurring right now which practically make the current green improvements redundant. Take the rise of the 'Internet of Things' for example which will continue to grow and demand an even larger amount of energy to be powered.

Still, I can't help but feel that technology and IT will be a major player in the greening of things; it already is starting to be. Why? Because it can hit the most polluting areas (including its own innefficiencies). Large scale businesses, governments, social interaction, etc. At the heart of IT is improvement; so as long as the innovators continue to realise the importance of environmentally-friendly services (not only for the environment, but also for economic and social reasons), then I do reckon that IT could easily become the centre of a much greener society. Ever the optimist...

If you want any more info on Green IT, there's an interesting report by Lyonsdown, which has a number of interesting and easy to read articles on various green ICT issues.