The greening of ICT
I am not terribly correct – politically, ecologically, nutritionally or any other ‘…ally’ you can name. My heart is in the right place, but I react badly to the pushing, posturing, the rhetoric and the half (if that) thought-through propositions of many of the ever so righteous advocates of ‘correctness’. I thoroughly understand – and support – the need for measures to combat global warming, to protect wildlife, and to protect the ecology of planet Earth, but I prefer reason to the unthinking enthusiasm of the LGM.
Way back in the sixties, radio astronomers discovered a rapidly pulsating, highly regular, star. They first named it LGM-1; we now call them ‘pulsars’ and they have proper astronomical catalogue denominations. The precision and regularity of their binary on/off radio pulse led some scientists to speculate half-seriously that an advanced alien civilization was sending signals. They jokingly named the new star after the old, stereotyped, science fiction intelligent extraterrestrials – ‘Little Green Men’ (LGM) that arrive on flying saucers.
Many of the environmentalists I have met, though not all by any means, are LGMs. They are ‘green’ and binary – yes or no, good or bad, love it or hate it – and emotionally simplistic in the way they see and try to deal with some very complex problems. Faced with evident environmental dangers and with little information about the complex tradeoffs – is it better to use biodegradable paper packaging or plastic bags and save millions of trees? – many well-intentioned souls turn into LGM and strike out blindly against the enemy.
Emotion and commitment is understandable, but simple solutions, simplistic solutions, won’t solve complex environmental problems. If the ICT sector is to contribute to the solution, we need more ICT sector leaders and industry associations involved in a concerted effort to understand the trade-offs, find workable solutions and develop green standards. It is neither simple to analyse nor easy to avoid being paralysed by the overwhelming amount of data involved.
In the United States, the TIA, the Telecommunications Industry Association, has made a promising start. Their EIATrack environmental programme offers companies a comprehensive international database of the relevant environmental legislation and regulations accompanied by expert analysis. They are striving to become the thought leaders in the field.
The EU is generally considered a leader in the use of “IT to help other industries reduce their carbon emissions”. Viviane Reding, the EU’s Telecoms Commissioner stated, “I am convinced that ICT has a key role to play in enabling energy efficiency improvements across the whole economy, thus lowering emissions and fighting climate change”. The EU hopes to use ICTs to monitor, optimise and reduce the energy consumed in construction, heating, cooling and lighting of buildings -some 40 per cent of the energy consumed in Europe. Indeed, ICTs will be essential to efforts aimed at saving vast amounts of energy – perhaps more than 50 per cent.
The need for ICT green is evident and new sector groups are springing up constantly, but despite a number of green initiatives, the impact has been tiny. Data centres are turning green more because of energy costs than conviction. Energy reduction through better equipment engineering, better data centre design, and better work management is the easy answer; it is an obvious way to reduce the carbon footprint and it cuts costs, so no one objects. Still, there is enormous waste in the sector that is not quite as obvious. Green ICT is relatively new and most ICT green efforts amount to little more than wiping carbon’s footprints on a doormat. How to eliminate other forms of waste is a somewhat harder question. Digging deeply into the question and eliminating less obvious sources of waste is not yet popular with most of the environmentally engaged ICT players.
Software is only one example of less obvious green waste. Watching my computer creep along, even after a recent registry cleanup, it occurred to me that I am using much more energy and time than necessary – that the time for a periodic Windows re-installation has come.
No one talks about it, but it seems to me that software is one of the major contributors to energy consumption. Once upon a time, in the early IBM 1401 days of mainframe computing, programmers prided themselves upon writing the tightest most efficient code possible. Of course, with 4KB mainframes (yes, that’s 4KB – about four thousand characters, kiddies) and an 87.5 KHz clock one had to code efficiently. Today, the cost of software, including what it costs to develop and maintain, often makes it more cost-efficient to use more lines of code rather than less.
In the cave-dwelling days of programming, one used machine language, Auto Coder, assembly languages, SPS-1, SPS-2 or, if you were a scientist, you might have used an early version of Fortran one of the first higher-level (somewhat) languages. We now have optimising compilers that transform high-level languages into code that can run as quickly – or more quickly given the complexity of hand-optimizing massive volumes of code for modern processors – as assembly language coding.
These days, with bigger, faster, processors, CPUs are idle a good part of the time while I/O operations are going on and information swapped between memory and disk storage. Although the time it takes to execute code or the constant execution of extra lines of sloppily written code is not very important to programmers or to data centre managers, it does keep machines humming needlessly.
Reducing the complexity of software, its sheer size and the tendency of some software’s performance to degrade is one of the ways to achieve green savings. It is time to re-examine the tendency to needlessly complicate software by including functions and features that are rarely, if ever, used. How about an industry-wide standard to rate just how green software is? Let’s see how MS Office stacks up against office suite X, how Windows’ green compares to Linux or if Oracle is greener than SAP. Kill two birds – bloated software and energy emissions. Better yet, force users of inefficient software to buy carbon offsets – we might end software bloat forever.
No matter how much we improve the energy efficiency of the ICT sector at every level, the real savings from ICT, as the EU rightly emphasises, are likely to come from ICT contributions to monitoring and reducing the emissions of heavy polluters, by monitoring factories and big office buildings to optimise their energy usage profiles. The largest corporate solar panel installation in North America, the 1.6-megawatt array at Google’s headquarters saves a lot of energy, but it is a trivial compared to what people can save by using the Internet to work at home.
The answer to the greening of ICT isn’t easy; the savings have to come from the whole value chain, from all the equipment, from the software and the way it is used and powered. To do this right, we will need accepted standards for green equipment, software, operations and the like. We will also need a much better idea of the tradeoffs, of the hidden costs down the line – do we use plastic bags or save trees – to make the right decisions.
There are no easy answers, but one thing seems certain, there is no way to make a greener world without ICTs.
Our next Connect-World Asia Pacific Issue will be published later this month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: • ITU Telecom Asia (Bangkok, Thailand 2-5 September) • GSMA Mobile World Congress Asia 2008 (Macau, SAR, 18th-20th November) • PT Expo Comm (Beijing, China 21-25 October) and • Vietnam Telecomp (Vietnam, 26- 29 November).
The theme of this issue will be – Internet usage and services.
The Internet has changed our world and the global economy. We are now entering a new stage in its growth. Web 2.0, collaboration, virtual worlds and mashups are all part of it. Also parts of the new Web are the evolutionary moves towards the semantic/ intelligent web, IPv6, the growth in enterprise services that are not a mere extension of existing services and financial services such as mobile cash and credit. The Web is also revolutionising education, healthcare, government and social services in general. The impact of this upon the world’s ICT infrastructure is hard to calculate, but you see and feel the effects wherever you are in the region – or the world.
Asia Pacific III 2008 Media Pack; Click here