Green IT: Why it is so important.

Updated July 9, 2012

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about Green IT.  People often don’t understand it, or think of it in a piecemeal way – in terms of a few energy-saving products they may have heard about.  Many companies are jumping on the environmentalist bandwagon, hoping to capitalize on the Sustainability movement.  What is Green IT really all about, and is it really important, compared with other environmental initiatives?

Moore’s Law dates back to Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore’s paper in 1965, where he observed a doubling of the componentry in integrated circuits every year since their invention in 1958, and predicted that the trend would continue.  Later “Moore’s Law” has been cited as a doubling of chip performance every 18 months (according to Intel executive David House) or every 2 years – which have proven to be consistent approximations over many years.  Thus we have come to expect increasing efficiencies in computing.  The typical desktop PC of today uses about the same sized power supply as it did 1995, indicating that power consumption has remained relatively flat as computer power has multiplied, due to continuing miniaturization.  Doesn’t this provide an opportunity for computer companies to “green wash” normal and expected improvements in efficiency as energy-saving breakthroughs?  When the oil and coal companies are touting how “green” they are, you have to ask yourself, what does green really mean?

Green IT can also be a confusing concept because we already think of computer-based systems as paragons of hyper-speed and hyper-efficiency.  There is no simple formula for how much “work” computers can do in terms of manual, physical, or intellectual labor, but the gains that have been achieved are obvious.  What’s more, there are many secondary environmental gains.  More people can work at home, reducing auto emissions.  Business people don’t need to travel as often or as far.  Manufacturing, shipping, transportation systems have been made faster and more energy-efficient thanks to computer-based logistics and automation.  The list goes on.  In light of all this, aren’t we just gilding the lily with the idea of Green IT?  Isn’t computer energy usage relatively inconsequential given all these benefits?

The Data Center Challenge

Yet Green IT is real – and it might be argued that it is of strategic importance in terms of worldwide energy policy and economic development.  By some reports, roughly 8% of all electric power use in the United States is for data centers.  Stated simply, the problem is that computers consume a lot of power (electricity), and they generate a lot of heat and must be cooled in order to function properly.  The electricity consumed for cooling actually comprises most of the energy costs for the average data center.  With the continuing rise of the internet, and the burgeoning demand for online shopping, Voice-over-IP, smart phones, video over IP, high speed graphics, and the growing usage of “the cloud,” the demand for data center capabilities is expected to rise rapidly.  What’s more, the peak demand periods that plague utility companies overlap times of heavy data usage.  Thus the greening of data centers can have a huge positive impact both on greenhouse gas emissions and on the secure operation of the power grid itself.

Recently our team worked with a midsize data center complex.  Out of the roughly 75,000 square feet of total floor space, the server room only took up 6,600 square feet.  The total electric bill for a recent year was about $535,000, and out of that approximately $375,000 was spent just on the server complex (running the hardware and cooling).  Thus more than two-thirds of this whopping bill went for less than a tenth of the floor space.  These numbers may convey to the average person the magnitude of the problem.  To make the issue even more convincing, I should point out that this data center was located in a temperate climate where it rarely reached 80 degrees F., was well managed and up-to-date in all its equipment, and had already deployed a number of state-of-the-art energy-saving strategies in software and computer hardware.

Big Data

The impetus for Green IT will soon reach critical levels due to the phenomenon we now refer to as “big data.”  I have heard various figures for the rate at which data are increasing, and they are staggering – one statistic cites a tenfold increase every five years.  Data are generated at faster and faster rates, and storage capacities are increasing, though not fast enough.  A 2010 article in The Economist, Data, data everywhere, provides some fascinating examples, and outlines a number of the issues.  Don’t think of big data as a lot of old files sent off to a dusty storeroom somewhere.  Think of them more like Google does – something to be indexed, searched, analyzed, and generally mined for value.  The sheer vastness of big data makes all this Google-like processing far more of a challenge.  Consider the difference between looking for a needle in a 1 cubic meter haystack versus a 10 cubic meter haystack.  The implications for Green IT should be clear:  big data not only imply more information to store, but also faster and more dynamic processing of those data.  As data increases tenfold, it would be unacceptable if searches and retrievals ran 10 times slower.  The storage itself increases power use, but the exhaustive processing also makes heavy demands.  (The successful management of big data is a separate, but related topic.)

While I am not offering detailed projections, it should be clear that a 10x increase in data and data processing within a five-year period would simply swamp the power grid without increases in energy efficiency.  Moore’s Law-type improvements now can be seen not just as fortuitous advances, but as the only thing keeping our society from being eaten by the giant data monster.  Recently, however, various scientists have expressed concern that Moore’s Law may start to fail, as the current silicon-based technologies are reaching limits at the atomic level and due to the laws of thermodynamics.  (For example, see The Collapse of Moore’s Law: Physicist Says It’s Already Happening by Matt Peckham in Time Techland.)  What’s more, the degree of difficulty in designing and fabricating denser megachips is increasing exponentially, demanding more intensive capital flows.  Breakthrough technologies may come to the rescue, but the timeline for their arrival is uncertain.  If you take Moore’s Law as a doubling every 2 years (rather than every 18 months), as some experts have stated it, we are already running behind, as chip power will only increase by 8x in 6 years, whereas data will increase 10x in only 5 years.  (In ten years this would imply a 100x increase in data, versus an increase in processing power of only 32x.  Interestingly, if we use a constant 18-month doubling for Moore’s Law, instead of 2 years, we stay about even with our 10x in 5 year data expansion.)  Granted, these are rough guidelines.  Even so, they should give us pause.

More than a Billion PCs

While data centers and the rise of big data are major challenges at the system and server level, Green IT has further challenges outside the data centers.  The number of personal computers in use in the world reached one billion at the end of 2008, with a prediction of two billion by 2015.  (See the article in Worldometers.)  This is a mix of desktops and laptops, and represents a substantial amount of electrical power usage (which includes a cooling load in office buildings in hot weather or climates).  If you walked into a big office floor space in the 1990s, it was very typical to see desktop computers and monitors running even when many of the people were elsewhere (not to mention printers and copiers).  Typically workers left their machines on 24/7 as well.  This world is changing.

The energy costs for workstations and personal computers are enormous, and often represent substantial expenses for businesses.  These costs aren’t even factored into our data center numbers, which means that the overall IT energy problem is far larger.  The energy costs for running a couple of computers in a small office may only be perceived as a minor issue to the small business owner, and cooling may not be a problem at all, as it is in a data center where so much processing power is concentrated.  In a large corporate office space, these issues do get attention as bottom-line items.  We should also factor in smart phones, tablets, and other devices.  Will the gradual shift from old-fashioned desktops to lower power devices like laptops, tablets, and phones, tend to reduce energy consumption?  … or will their very popularity, and the fact that many people are now using these devices to run intense games and applications and stream entire movies, significantly increase the load on data centers?

The overall picture is complex.  However, it certainly has gotten the attention of the utility companies in locales where they are struggling with peak demand issues, environmental mandates, and record heat waves.  Some utilities have been subsidizing businesses to replace older desktop PCs and servers with new models equipped with 80 PLUS certified power supplies.  These are at least 80% efficient, compared with the typical 60-70% percent, and reduce computer energy consumption by 15-25%.  The fact that the utilities are stepping up here is an indication that PC power consumption is an important target in their efforts to manage burgeoning power consumption.

A New Definition of Green IT

Given all this, we can really begin to see the importance of Green IT.  For purposes here, we can define Green IT as the technologies and approaches that give us energy savings, and reduced environmental damage, over and above those gains provided by Moore’s Law (the chipmakers).  We might say that the core business of the chipmakers (like Intel) is to make more powerful processors with relatively flat energy usage and also a relatively flat cost.  In contrast, the goals of Green IT include:

  • Reducing energy (electricity) usage and costs involved in running the hardware, including cooling.
  • Computer hardware designs for lower power consumption.
  • Software and hardware architectures that maximize the utilization of the computers in operation.
  • Reducing demands on the electricity grid during peak periods.
  • Reducing the overall carbon footprint.
  • Reducing various types of damage to the environment.

There is of course no hard line between Moore’s Law progress and Green IT.  As awareness of Sustainability and Green IT has increased, the chip people have been moving in that direction, and the Green IT people are looking to the chip people to bring them those innovations.  Nevertheless, I think that this distinction gives a good idea of what we are looking for from Green IT.  It will be Green IT, coupled with the benefits of Moore’s Law, which will keep us ahead of the curve on energy use.  In fact, Green IT has the potential for delivering a big leap forward.

Green IT Solutions

Within the last few years a number of technologies have emerged that promise drastic improvements in data center and computer energy demand.  A few of these are already becoming widely accepted.  The data center problem is being attacked on a number of fronts, and the best results are being achieved by combining solutions.

I will briefly mention some approaches in various areas.

Computer Hardware

  • High Efficiency Servers.  SeaMicro claims it servers can run the same software on ¼ the power and take up 1/6 the space as more conventional designs.
  • Vitualization and Server Pooling.  VMWare, a leader in the field claims up to 80% energy savings by running more “servers” on far fewer physical computers.
  • Solid State Drives.  Very expensive now, but costs are coming down.  They provide more operations/transactions per watt.
  • Green Workstations.  There are many things going on to improve upon the old fleet of desktops and monitors running 24/7 on the office floor.  We already mentioned more efficient power supplies.  Tied in with cloud and virtualization advancements in the data center, minimalist workstations are replacing full-sized desktops in the office.  Newer equipment generally runs more efficiently, including as the new Energy Star LED monitors.


  • Software-as-a-Service / Multi-Tenancy.  In the cloud, many separate business/corporate software accounts can be run on a single computer.  Process automation software (for example, customer relationship management) is a key productivity factor in most organizations.  It is extensive in that it serves many users in an organization, but it is generally not processor intensive.  A busy server may consume more energy than a relatively quiescent one.  However, if it can process many accounts simultaneously, the net energy savings can be substantial. claims that energy costs per transaction are reduced by orders of magnitude by running business software in the cloud!

Advanced Cooling

  • Advanced HVAC.  Coolerado’s revolutionary designs have documented data center energy savings in the 90% range – truly astounding results!
  • Ice Systems.  Ice Energy takes advantage of low off-peak electric rates to freeze water during the night, and the ice provides cooling during the day.
  • Environmental Cooling.  Simple, but effective:  outside air is pumped in during cold weather.  Geothermal cooling is another highly efficient technology in regions where it is practical.
  • Advanced airflow design.  This is often a part of other advanced cooling systems, and enables them to achieve their full potential.

Advanced Insulation

  • Radiant Barriers.  Innovative Insulation is a lead provider of this stupendously effective, yet inexpensive form of insulation based on space blanket technology.  I have spoken with engineers and technicians who claim to have achieved significant reductions in cooling costs in data centers and other structures using radiant barriers.

Alternative Energy

  • Solar, Methane, etc.  Alternative energy sources are often very effective when combined with other technologies that drastically reduce power consumption.  For example, some companies are becoming the driving financial forces behind methane harvesting at landfills, and they use the methane to lower their electricity costs significantly (and remove a dangerous greenhouse gas from the environment).
  • Microturbines, Fuel Cells, etc.  Local energy production can be advantageous (Bloom Energy is a well-known player in this field.)
  • Grid Management.  Data centers can partner with utility companies to bring in technologies to help balance the grid.  The utilities may be willing to assume some of the costs of these projects.

Battery and Energy Storage Improvements

  • Lithium Air (and other Energy Storage advancements).  Battery technology may have more of impact on electric vehicles than on Green IT, but the field bears watching.  Large battery backup systems are used in data centers along with emergency generators.  Lithium air batteries are several years away, but may offer ten times the storage density compared with lithium ion.  This increased density may actually allow data centers to use batteries for energy storage to take advantage of off-peak rates (like the ice systems), lowering costs and reducing strains on the power grid.  (Now battery systems are mostly used for very short-term smoothing between the moment grid power is lost and the time the emergency diesel generator kicks in.)
  • Cleaner battery chemistry.  Cleaner and more economical raw materials for large battery arrays may or may not directly affect energy costs, but they will lead to a cleaner environment.

These and other technologies not only show great promise.  They will also prove to be essential as we move into the world of big data and greater energy challenges.  However, the best results can only be achieved based on skillful and careful analysis.  Simply retrofitting in a green technology may yield good results, or it may not.  Combination solutions are almost always optimal when the costs and benefits are factored in.  For example, solar power may be a good choice for a data center, but the cost of replacing most or all electricity by solar would probably be prohibitively expensive, and a very poor use of resources.  However, solar combined with a revolutionary cooling system and optimized air flow, and advanced computer hardware and software, may be an excellent approach.

A final note:  Besides the tremendous benefits to the environment and society that Green IT improvements offer, they can also have a significant effect on an organization’s bottom line.  They can be outstanding investments, and a variety of financing options may be available.

Russell Kennedy Partners is proud to partner with a team of experts in various areas of data center energy conservation.

DISCLAIMER:  Russell Kennedy Partners has no financial affiliation with any of companies discussed in this article at this time, nor are there any promotional considerations.  We are not endorsing any of the products mentioned, nor do we wish to imply that any of them are superior to their competitors.  We do not vouch for any of the claims mentioned here or elsewhere.  The products have been cited based on our own limited research and our acquaintance with engineers who work with some of the products in question.  These and other similar products are complex, and will only yield optimal results when deployed by competent engineers and specialists.  The reader is urged to her or his own research.

Copyright © 2011-2012 Patrick D. Russell


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