Last week I attended a debate on IT energy efficiency that managed to be encouraging and dispiriting in equal measure.
Encouragement came from a panel of senior executives from firms such as Intel, HP and Capgemini speaking of the urgent need to improve the energy efficiency of IT equipment that currently accounts for around one percent of the western world's power demands.
They discussed at length the cost benefits of improving energy efficiency, the business opportunity, and the moral and economic imperative for action. As Gordon Graylish, vice president for EMEA at Intel, observed: "The world won't be a great market if it's all bubbling away and half of it is under water."
They also agreed that if the IT industry is to help its customers reduce their energy consumption international standards are essential for measuring and comparing products' energy efficiency.
And there the consensus kind of ground to a halt, because while everyone agrees standards are needed to resolve the confusion caused by every vendor claiming their products are the most energy efficient, there is little agreement on how those standards should be developed.
Graylish insisted the development of standards should be industry led and that government should restrict itself to setting "goals" rather than strict rules.
"It's no good setting a rule that says a machine in standby can only consume four Watts if then I can't wake my machine up because it doesn't have the power available," Graylish argued.
Zoe McMahon of HP also went into bat against government regulation, arguing that while legislation was useful at "cutting off the bad performers", it was the responsibility of the vendors, who "know their technology best", to develop standards.
However, Daniel Fleischer of analyst IDC argued legislation was needed to stimulate more action from the IT industry. While, Catriona McAlister of environmental consultancy AEA, pointed out that the Energy Star labeling system - perhaps the most successful energy standard in the market currently and one which has won widespread industry support - is run by the US government's Environmental Protection Agency.
In fact Energy Star - which has won support from the European Union and only grants labels to the most efficient 25 percent of PCs and printers that apply for accreditation - offers the most encouraging sign that genuine international standards are approaching.
However, even with the Energy Star initiative well under way there are signs trouble could be brewing. McMahon argued that while Energy Star was welcome, the government would be misguided to insist that all products it buys have the label as this would stop it considering 75 percent of the market. Which may be the case, but surely that is kind of the point.
Meanwhile, Karl Deacon of Capgemini praised the Energy Star labeling system for its simplicity and argued that a similar labeling system, "like that used for fridges", was needed for servers.
But Graylish disagreed, countering that while standardised metrics for servers were needed, a colour coded labeling system (red for bad, green for good) would be too simplistic for the near infinite number of server configurations.
It was at this point, with the confusion the industry is apparently committed to resolving deepening by the minute, that I asked if IT vendors actually had a vested interest in not developing a universal standard.
The whole panel dismissed this outright insisting that they desperately wanted an end to the confusion and that numerous standards agencies and vendors were rushing to develop an agreeable metric.
Now this is probably true, everyone seemed utterly committed to tackling the issue and I don't doubt all the company's represented believe they are doing all they can to find an acceptable energy efficiency standard.
However, they are being extremely disingenuous to suggest that an end to the confusion would be beneficial to all vendors. An international standard that will allow customers to easily compare and contrast the energy efficiency of IT hardware will only benefit the two or three vendors delivering the most energy efficient systems. This would be great for customers who will be able to easily pick the products that'll give them the lowest electricity bills and great for the planet as vendors are forced to out engineer each other in search of ever more efficient systems. But it will be hugely damaging to those vendors who are currently followers rather than leaders in the race for more efficient technologies.
The fact that Energy Star has been in place for ten years and still has limited traction; the fact that so few vendors are prepared to submit to seeing the energy efficiency of competitive products independently tested; and the fact that each vendor is currently developing their own standards, which they are unlikely to give up lightly, all prove that even while they say they are committed to standards at least some firms understand there is capital to be made from the confusion continuing.
Large customers can circumnavigate vendors' competing claims by testing rival products themselves, but the vast majority of firms simply don’t have the resources to do that and they need a clear standardised metric to judge which product is most efficient.
Let's get this straight, a standard energy efficient metric supported by all vendors is perhaps the single most beneficial thing the IT industry can do to tackle global warming and help their customers slash their electricity bills. Customers want one, governments want one, and manufacturers say they want one.
There are thousands of reasons why developing an acceptable standard that won’t stifle innovation is difficult, but I refuse to believe it is insurmountably so. It is crunch time for the hardware vendor community: they must back up their words and settle on an agreed international standard and they must do it fast.
If they fail to do so then governments, if they are serious about climate change, will have little choice but to impose one - and we all know what happens when governments try to regulate technology they don't really understand.
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