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June 28, 2007 | Andrew Winston | Jump to: Comments (0) | Post A Comment

$20 Bills Everywhere (or, The Greening of IT, Part I)

[Originally posted here, on June 8, 2007]

A few weeks ago I took part in an event that IBM held to announce its new green initiative. The focus was on data centers, those large buildings filled with servers that power all of our Internet searches and emails among other things. Any company depending on technology and large stores of data (and that covers a lot of territory lately) knows that this part of the IT world is an energy hog and is starting to cost some real money. IT’s contribution to climate change is starting to attract some real notice — some estimates place IT’s role at 2-5% of global emissions, equal to the entire aviation industry. And as fast as air travel is growing, no doubt IT is growing faster.

Also, getting a handle on IT energy is becoming a fiscal issue. Energy expense used to be a small part of the server budget, but now, worldwide, business customers are spending nearly as much on power and cooling as on the servers themselves. So it’s both kinds of green driving the interest here.

One piece of data that IBM shared really caught my attention and I can’t stop telling people about it. I’ve recreated the chart (it’s based on their data and some EPA studies I believe). The gist is this — of all the energy and electrons entering a server farm, only 4% goes toward actually processing some information — the thing the data center was built for. I’ve been aghast at this statistic, but Green IT expert Mark Monroe (from Sun) reminded me recently that transportation is perhaps worse: something like less than 1% of the energy coming out of the oil wells that ends up as gas is used to move a 150 lb person around in a 4,000 lb car (Amory Lovins has done some of these calculations). But the comparison doesn’t make me feel better.


The car analogy aside, in the IT space, there is tremendous room for improvement in energy efficiency. Is the idea of an order of magnitude improvement in that 4% crazy? I don’t think so. So imagine that we could increase the computing capacity of the world’s data centers ten-fold without a single additional server farm. It may not be great for the sellers of technology, but the competition is on, and someone’s going to make it happen. (I’ll do a follow-up post with some Green IT tidbits I picked up from a panel of IT brains I ran at a tech conference recently.)

The overall lesson is profound — in many industries we are nowhere near as efficient as we can be. The low-hanging fruit are watermelons of savings just waiting for smart companies to pick. We have a lot of room to run. The proverbial $20 bill on the factory floor is surrounded by many other bills.


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