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Read most treatises on green computing, and they now focus on how much energy computers use when they are running. It is an important part of any environmentally friendly computing initiative.

But what about the consumption involved in making the equipment itself? The amount of IT equipment being bought is a fundamental problem, according to Tim Jenkins, IT officer at the Powys-based Centre for Alternative Technology, because making PCs uses natural resources, and consumes energy.

“The problem is that they’ve said unlimited consumption is OK. Consumption is the problem from a climate perspective, and recycling only goes part way,” he says.

A simple answer would be to upgrade computing equipment less frequently so as to limit consumption, but there are complications.

For one thing, the financial implications are difficult. A July report by the National Audit Office in the UK indicated that public sector organisations generally replace their PCs every five years, while the private sector does it every three. But five-year-old equipment has practically no residual value, said the report, whereas three-year-old equipment can be resold.

The government could save £70m a year by following the private sector, according to the NAO. It could also save on maintenance costs, which start to creep up after three years.

But Rob Anderson, who heads the desktop licensing practice at IBM says there is no evidence to back up the benefits of more frequent replacement of equipment: “Servers can last for five to 10 years, so why can’t PCs?” He says many of his commercial customers are locked into three-year refresh cycles, but encourages them to find ways to extend that to five years or more, arguing it could present financial as well as environmental benefits.

So why is three years such a magic number in commercial PC procurement? Part of the problem is the software that runs on it. New software is so powerful that older machines are unable to run it properly. Windows Vista requires hardware upgrades in many cases.

Licensing policies from some of the larger vendors can exacerbate this problem, says Mr Anderson.

“We encourage customers to look at their licensing contracts to ensure they’re not locked into this cycle of three-year contracts, where they get access to the latest technology but it forces them into a hardware upgrade,” he says.

On the other hand, keeping old PCs for longer can stop new ones with environmentally friendly features from entering the company, warns Joseph Reger, the CTO for Fujitsu Siemens Computers.

“There are lots of developments going on in terms of standby power consumption reduction,” he says. “The old equipment has outrageous consumption. Keep that around for another few years, and it will continue to eat up power.”

When computers are replaced, it is possible to give the old ones a second life, either through a sale or a donation. A report produced by the European Commission’s EcoComputer project, which explores ways of improving the environmental performance of IT equipment, found that the average first life of a desktop, CRT, or LCD monitor is six years, with laptops averaging five years.

The potential second life is the same again, which raises the possibility that equipment replaced early would enjoy a longer second life – or even perhaps create a third life, for another, even more cost-conscious, user.

Getting the equipment out of a company and into the right hands involves either dealing with the vendor through a take-back scheme, under which they will dispose of it, or – for anyone brave enough to try to delete the data themselves – selling it on eBay.

Next year, a third option may be possible. Second Rotation, a company focusing on the consumer market, will be launching a corporate version of its service called the Frugal CIO.

Second Rotation uses an extensive back-end database to value the used electronic equipment, and then purchases it from the user, selling it through multiple channels, including eBay, and making a small profit.

The advantage for sellers is that they get the cash up front, the equipment is picked up from them – or the cost of shipment added to the purchase price – and Second Rotation guarantees to wipe the data.

“People are sending us laptops already,” says CEO Rousseau Aurelien, explaining that companies are already trying to use the consumer service. “When we launch the Frugal CIO, we will include desktops, servers, telephone and network equipment, but right now we are just helping them out with the laptops.”

But this does not solve the consumption problem. How can companies cut expenditure on equipment – and therefore their environmental footprint – if they stick to shorter refresh cycles? One answer could be to adopt thin client computing.

Thin clients are screens with minimal computing power that are used to access centralised resources. They can last for longer because they are doing less desktop computation and therefore need less frequent upgrades.

However, this puts pressure on the central computing function, which must carry more muscle to serve the thin clients.

Virtualisation could be the answer here, along with utility computing. This involves running more than one operating system on the same piece of hardware, essentially persuading one computer to pretend that it is many PCs.

Traditionally, for reliability reasons, many data centre servers have only run a single software application, meaning that 80 per cent of their computing power went unused.

Running multiple operating systems on the same machine enables IT departments to use all that extra computing power.

Virtualising servers could squeeze more power from existing hardware, and stave off procurement for another year or two.

Chris Grant, director of data centre services at the Colt Telecom Group, also promotes utility computing.

Offered via its German data centre, utility computing provides computing power via a metering model similar to those provided for water or electricity – users pay for what they need, and supply can expand to suit peaks in demand.

”We’re removing the capital expenditure from the smaller organisation that can’t offer that capitalisation up front,” he says.

Ultimately, altering IT buying patterns to make
IT infrastructure greener should also be financially beneficial. A mixture of astute financial analysis, combined with the right use of technology and potentially managed services, could help make the balance sheet – and the planet – healthier.

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