IBM won deserved plaudits last week for its pledge to invest $1bn a year in "greening" its massive data centres, but its promise to enhance the energy efficiency of its IT operations also highlights the true scale of the environmental challenge the technology sector now faces.
On the face of it IBM's new "Project Big Green" initiative is hugely impressive. This is not some vague promise to become more sustainable but a carefully articulated, properly resourced and company-wide energy strategy backed up with some serious cash.
Under the plan the company - which runs the world's largest commercial technology infrastructure and is responsible for eight million square feet of server farms – has said it will launch a new "green team" consisting of over 850 energy efficiency architects to drive the new initiative.
This division will deploy a raft of new technologies across IBM's data centre estate, including energy monitoring software and advanced 3D power management and thermal modeling capabilities, improved design techniques, cutting edge virtualisation technologies, enhanced power management systems and new energy efficient liquid cooling infrastructure.
IBM estimates that deploying these new systems and techniques will allow it to slash energy use by 42 percent in its average 25,000 square foot data centre – reducing carbon emissions by almost 7,500 tonnes a year based on the energy mix in the US.
As Mike Daniels, senior vice president at IBM Global Technology Services, explained there is also a strong business case for the investment. "The data centre energy crisis is inhibiting our clients' business growth as they seek to access computing power," he said. "Many data centres have now reached full capacity, limiting a firm's ability to grow and make necessary capital investments."
IBM has vowed that its new green investments will help tackle this problem by doubling "the computing capacity of its data centres within the next three years without increasing power consumption or its carbon footprint". Compared to simply doubling the size of its data centre real estate IBM calculates that the initiative will save over five billion kilowatt hours of energy per year.
However, this target, while admirable, also serves to highlight the sheer scale of the challenge the IT sector faces in trying to limit its environmental impact.
In terms of carbon emissions IBM is spending a $1bn a year to stand still. To simply ensure its data centres' emissions do not continue to rise as demand for computing capacity rises the company is having to embark on a massive infrastructure overhaul involving over 850 staff and countless new technologies.
Moreover, despite all the new energy efficient systems IBM and others are now deploying there are no guarantees that IT's carbon footprint is not going to get worse.
At the heart of this environmental crisis lies a perennial IT challenge: the data explosion. There are countless studies suggesting that the amount of data that needs to be stored pretty much doubles every year and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that as data breeds more data that rate is quickening. According to one study released last year by IBM itself the amount of digital information in the world will double every 11 hours by 2010.
Of course Moores' law and improvements in storage technologies help cope with this increased demand for computing capacity, but unless the rate at which IT engineers improve energy efficiency starts to exceed the run away increase in data quantity the chances of actually reducing IT's power consumption in the long term remains slim.
New technologies such as virtualisation or storage consolidation may be able to slash datacentre energy use by up to 80 percent in the short term, but even the best run datacentres would see such savings eaten up pretty quickly as demands for computing capacity continue to accelerate.
The IT industry has done phenomenally well in the last two years to turn its attention to the environmental concerns so quickly and start to improve the energy efficiency of IT kit, but for many businesses such as IBM deploying these new technologies is doing little more than stabilising energy use. It is like running up an escalator heading in the other direction.
The big question now is whether or not other energy efficiency developments will come along at a rate that outstrips the demands for more computing power, thus genuinely reducing IT's energy consumption. If you consider that the UK government has set a target of reducing carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050 it is clear that the IT industry has a very, very long way to go if it is to sufficiently reduce IT's energy footprint while continuing to cope with the never-ending data growth.
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