Green computing remains a controversial subject

March 25th, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

Two decades ago, green computing was on everyone’s lips but today we are more concerned about the processing speed, harddrive capacity and whether to choose a solid state or an electro-mechanical storage device. When last did we ask if the computer has an energy star rating? We assume it has!

Basically, green computing is the study of designing, manufacturing, using, and disposing of computers, servers, and related subsystems (such as monitors, printers, storage devices, and networking and communications systems) in a way that is efficient and effective with minimal or no impact on the environment. It also strives to get economic achievability and better system performance. But in recent years another contender is making a claim to make us greener: cloud computing, a controversial contender!

The green computing debate started in 1992 when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a labelling programme called Energy Star. The label of Energy Star became a common sight on notebook computers and display equipment. In Europe and Asia, similar programmes were implemented. Energy Star certified computers deliver substantial savings over standard models. Desktops, integrated desktops, notebook (laptop) computers, workstations, small-scale servers, and thin clients are all eligible to earn the Energy Star, and those that do are more efficient than ever before. Check the label on your computing devices.

Green is a cost-driven decision

The call for “green IT” always revolved around cost and practicality, rather than corporate responsibility. In 2005 there was a new resurgence of focus on green IT when the likes of Intel began making dual-core CPUs that used the extra cores to run tasks in parallel without drawing more power. This move was partly due to the difficulty of pushing more power through smaller integrated circuits, but was equally, if not more so, driven by cost. At Intel’s press conference to launch those chips, Google fellow Urs Hölzle said that Google was paying another half of the capital expense on its servers in energy costs. Dual-core would make PCs and servers more efficient.

Not many years after its resurgence, the interest in green computing waned. An example of this when CompTIA killed off its Green IT certification in 2013, just three years after introducing it. Its justification was that green IT is just a part of how companies do business, rather than a separate discipline.

Although we know that green computing is important, many think: “I am just one person, I cannot make any difference to something as global as climate change.” If we are reluctant to make practical changes in behaviour, such as turn off the computer when not in use or recycle used paper, climate change will accelerate. But, perhaps without knowing it, the software architects made us more green-responsible when they introduced hibernation and the sleep modes.

Hibernation takes down everything running on RAM, including open windows and apps, and moves it to a special file on the hard drive, then shuts down completely. When turning the computer back on, it grabs everything saved in that file faster than if the computer was shut down normally. This option doesn’t consume any power or battery life because the computer is technically off.

However, there is a downside to hibernation: rebooting the computer takes much longer than just letting it fall asleep and then waking it back up. The sleep mode is sort of the inverse of hibernation, most of a computer’s operations (like the hard drive) are turned off and RAM is placed in a minimum power state. When waking up the computer boots quickly. This is because the computer is still on and using power/battery life, although less.

Experts recommend that computers are shut down at least once a week. It will stop temporary files building up and makes sure updates are installed. Shutting down closes all the apps that were open, clears the contents of RAM, and gets rid of temporary files that were created during the sessions, provided it is shut down properly. If a PC shuts down suddenly, it may not delete temporary files. Windows users have the main advantage that it saves power, but it also “refreshes” Windows by getting rid of those temporary files and it allows downloaded updates to be installed.

Cloud computing for a green economy?

As eluded at the beginning of the article, cloud computing is, in the eyes of many, a contributor to the green economy but not without much debate. On one side, some see a massive new form of industrialisation gobbling up resources; with large cloud and social networking sites consuming megawatts of power to feed insatiable computing needs. Greenpeace called attention to the growing, power-hungry data centre footprint, citing estimates that cloud computer sites could consume up to 622,6-billion kWh of power. Dr Jonathan Koomey, consulting professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, estimates that the cloud is already responsible for 1-2% of the world’s electricity use.

On the other hand, there is also a view that cloud adoption, by moving companies to share pooled resources and facilities, is helping to contain what could be relentless, viral growth of duplicate data centres across every enterprise. Two recent industry-funded studies make the case for cloud as energy-saver. A report issued by the Carbon Disclosure Project, supported by AT&T, finds that a company that adopts cloud computing can reduce its energy consumption, lower its carbon emissions and decrease its capital expenditure on IT resources while improving operational efficiency. The group estimates that by 2020, large US companies using cloud computing can achieve annual energy savings of $12,3-billion and carbon reductions equivalent to 200-million barrels of oil.

In another study, by Accenture, Microsoft and WSP Environment and Energy, it is estimated that a 100-person company with applications deployed in the cloud can reduce energy consumption and emissions by more than 90%.

Another part of the Green debate is about how to dispose of green computers. Donation to needy users is good for a company’s social responsibility score card, but it does not solve the problem. At some stage it still has to be disposed of and it does not appear if the industry has quite solved this problem. No doubt the green debate will continue.

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