Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

ICT: Part of the solution to climate change

As the day-to-day use of ICT continues to rise, concern is growing about the carbon emissions indirectly caused by the manufacture of the electronics that litter our lives and the steady rise in the electricity required to power our personal devices and data centres. However, the debate should be less about ICT’s tiny contribution to global warming and more about how ICT can be used to reduce carbon emissions across society.

Part of the solution, not part of the problem

The ICT sector is regularly harangued about the “2%” figure – the amount of global carbon emissions attributable to ICT according to a Gartner report. That figure is oft-quoted alongside real dirty polluters such as the airline industry (who dump CO2 straight into the upper-atmosphere, bypassing many of the natural ground-level sequestration mechanisms), but what is often forgotten is that in exchange for our emissions (2-3% of total in the UK) we are contributing roughly 10% of UK GDP and 15% of national trade.

Further, we (the ICT sector) have our own house well in order and have committed to reducing our own emissions as I will describe shortly. However, of much greater important is what the intelligent use of ICT can do to reduce emissions in other sectors, as highlighted by several groups including GeSI:

“ICT can reduce annual global emissions by 15 per cent by 2020 and deliver energy efficiency savings to global businesses of over EUR 500 billion”
– Global e‐Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age, June 2008

Even the panda-people (the World Wildlife Fund) have got in on the act; their report with Gartner titled “Saving the 1st billion tonnes” puts the intelligent application of ICT in 10 key areas (eg. smart grid, intelligent buildings and transport avoidance) as being key to reducing our collective carbon emissions:

“‘Green IT’ is an oxymoron, until you consider use of IT to ‘green’ business and society.”
– Simon Mingay, Gartner10

Example: Transport avoidance

Perhaps the most obvious way that ICT can help is in transport avoidance. As David MacKay illustrates in his excellent (and free!) book Without Hot Air, personal transport in the form of driving cars and flying in jet aeroplanes are two of the worst things we do as a nation, together contributing to over 40% of our total energy consumption.

Cars are the worst offender, consuming a whopping 40 kilo Watt-hours (kWh) per day per person (to put that in perspective, we use about 4 kWh/d each on lighting). Even with electric cars we still have to get the energy to run them from somewhere, and there are simply not going to be enough renewables to go around at current usage levels. The only way to significantly reduce the energy consumption attributable to cars & planes is to use them less, and that is where ICT comes in; for example by enabling home working (tele-working), even if just one day a week, and reducing travel to meetings with telepresence technologies.

Keeping our own house in order

Although we can help reduce carbon emissions elsewhere, we absolutely must do so in a sustainable manner, which is why we in the ICT industry are putting lots of effort into keeping our own house in order. Last year, Intellect UK (Britain’s high-tech trade association) release their High-Tech: Low-Carbon report , which articulates an action plan on how the UK technology sector is going to reduce its emissions.

Further, Digital Europe (formerly EICTA) has committed to reduce Europe’s ICT-related carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. Many of us think that target is achievable by 2015, but how can I be so sure of dramatic carbon savings when our collective use of ICT is increasing constantly?

A lot of the existing inefficiencies of the sector lie in the data centre, and that is also where I expect to see the largest efficiency gains. The UK, in particular the BCS Data Centre Specialist Group, has taken a global lead in advancing the field of energy efficiency within the data centre, and was instrumental in developing the European Union’s Code of Conduct for data centres, which stipulates a range of best practices for every layer of the IT service delivery stack (from mechanical & electrical to software selection).

Memset recently become the first British Web hosting provider become a participant to the Code of Conduct, and we encourage others to follow suit (which many already are). The Code is free, is not hard to do (I did ours in a day) and the best practices contained in it are designed to to improve efficiency which means saving money, so it is just good business sense.

Moore transistors please!

However, there is a much bigger effect that incremental improvements to data centre design, and that is the combination of Moore’s Law with virtualisation technology. The work done per Watt by servers has been increasingly roughly in line with Moore’s Law, ie. doubling every 18 months, and is expected to continue to do so. Now that virtualisation has reached the main stream it is being deployed en-masse, allowing legacy servers to be shut down and replaced with vastly more efficient virtual systems, usually consolidating physical machines by a factor of more than 10 to 1.

Take us as an example; this year we have deployed roughly 1,000 virtual servers. Each virtual machine (VM) would otherwise have been a physical server (or in many cases used to be before it was migrated to us), and in fact many people are still using cheap old tower PCs for cheap hosting, but thankfully that practice is dying out. A normal server or PC uses around 90-120 Watts continuously, whereas one of our Xen-based Miniserver VMs uses 5-10Watts, but does the same work. Taking into account cooling and other data centre inefficiencies lets just call it 100Watts saving in round numbers:

1,000 VMs x 100 Watts = 100,000 Watts
x 30.4 days x 24 hours = 73,000 kWh / month
x 430g / kWh = 31,400 kg CO2 / month

So just from what we have done in our little corner of the ICT sector, just with new customers and in just one year, we have helped avoid over 30 tonnes per month, or 360 tonnes per year, of carbon dioxide emissions. To put that in context, each British citizen is responsible for about 9 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. Not bad for 18 people in Guildford!

Being green is just good business sense

When it comes to ICT services, especially in the data centre, the two things that cost you the most money also cause the most carbon emissions; manufacturing the hardware (the servers / computers) and electricity to run them. In short:

Green = Efficient = Lower costs

There really is no excuse for us as an industry not to improve our energy-and-carbon efficiency, and companies that don’t will end up with higher cost bases and ultimately will be driven out of business by their more efficient competitors.

Conclusion: Let ICT do its job

The Intellect Work Programme has estimated that the knowledge economy now employs 41% of the UK workforce, and that it will account for roughly 50% of GBP by 2010. Data centres are ever-more becoming the backbone of UK PLC, and a healthy ICT industry is vital for both cutting our carbon emissions (as described above) and for driving our economic growth in the next decade.

Further, the ICT sector already has its house well in-order, so it is important that any policy measures do not interfere with the industry’s growth. Unfortunately, well-intended but poorly-conceived legislation such as the Carbon Reduction Commitment, which in the next few months is being rushed through with little-to-no consultation with industry, threatens ICT’s ability to deliver on its promise of supporting a prosperous, more sustainable society. Hopefully the next government will just let us do our job.