Paint it green

Energy efficient hardware is one step forward for the IT industry, but there is a lot more to be done to be truly green

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By  Mark Sutton Published  May 11, 2008

While the IT industry and the fashion industry thankfully don't often cross paths, there really can't be anybody in IT who doesn't know that this season's colour is green. Hardware manufacturers everywhere, from the smallest chip to the biggest NAS, from the bleeding edge digital consumer to highest end HPC lab, this year IT is covered from head to toe is deepest, ethical, tree-hugging green.

Of course, there are plenty of different shades of green to be seen. One of the most striking shades of green is the effort being made by many different hardware and software vendors to reduce power consumption. It's hard now to find a manufacturer that is not tailoring their products so that they use less energy and put out less heat. Cutting power usage, at any level of the IT stack, from processor to application to server room, is a great step forward and will hopefully have a positive impact on our use of power and on how we think about energy conservation in general.

The fact that the power-saving shade of green also appeals to that other shade of green - the financial sort of green - makes it all the more compelling, and all the more likely to succeed. After all, what manager doesn't want to cut overheads? The problem is that while efforts toward power saving look like a real change toward a greener future, many of the other efforts of manufacturers look simply like slapping on a coat of green paint without giving a lot of though to what's going on underneath - specifically, when a product is at end of life, what are you going to have to throw away, and how long will it last before it has to be thrown away?

Greenpeace has been pressurizing electronics manufacturers to clean up their act for a few years now, with its Guide to Greener Electronics, which rates companies on their use of toxic and harmful chemicals in their products. While their science has been questioned, one of their most prominent targets, Apple, has switched some of the materials in its latest iMac products to more environmentally friendly glass and aluminium.

Using materials that can be recycled more easily can have a positive impact on the environment, assuming that the devices are disposed of properly once they reach end of life, rather than merely being shipped off to India, China or somewhere in Africa where they will be broken down by children to recover toxic metals. Without the pressing financial imperative for change, the move to more environmentally friendly materials may take longer to have an impact than the move to less power hungry hardware, but at least the issue is getting some attention.

Worst of all, for my money, is the sheer lack of longevity that so many products seem to have. My last two mobile phones haven't lasted more than twelve months before keypads, browser controls, flips, slides and so on, have started to wear out. While we might not think much of buying a new handset every twelve months, and the gadget freaks and the forgetful will probably get through a lot more than that, why aren't handsets built to last longer? Apple introduced the iPhone just a year ago, and yet is now ready to obsolete version one with the introduction of a new 3G, GPS version two - yet both these technologies were widely available when version one was launched, so why weren't they included at the time? Does the average user's requirements change so rapidly that they need a new handset every six months? I don't think so. GSM standards certainly haven't changed overnight.

Consumer electronics and PC hardware is another problem. I currently have a home theatre system at home where the main unit has burnt itself out, but most of the satellite speakers, including a particularly mean sub-woofer, are still working - but I can't replace the main unit or find a DVD player that is compatible with the remaining units. Likewise I have a beautiful mini-separates hi-fi stack with four separate units, where I may have to replace the whole lot, just because one unit has had a ‘malfunction' and I can't replace one unit (it's not been a good year for electronics in my house). Even a perfectly serviceable PC is now effectively dead for games and exempt from a Windows Vista upgrade for want of an up-to-date AGP graphics card.

This lack of foresight in designing devices for longevity and eco-friendliness isn't just confined to aging devices either. Microsoft makes a rechargeable battery set for its Xbox controller - exactly like a mobile phone rechargeable battery - yet the console itself doesn't ship with the rechargeable unit, but the standard controller and a packet of AA batteries. You wouldn't buy a mobile phone that ran on disposable batteries, but Microsoft thinks that's ok for the default for its flagship console, and let those that want a more eco-friendly option pay extra for it.

The lack of interoperability, standardization of components, backwards compatibility and so on, is effectively consigning tons of e-waste to landfill because it's just not possible to get all the bits to work together, or to replace and repair individual parts of solutions when they have failed, or to get the whole solution to last for a reasonable amount of time if they do.

There is some progress being made, with server technology showing the way in terms of continuity and maintaining an overall solution even if a component fails, although this level of industrial design seems a long way off from the average notebook manufacturer.

There is also some positive progression in areas like thin client, where companies such as Sun Microsystems are challenging what hardware an end user really needs for the task at hand, and finding ways to deliver that with minimal impact. It's not a message that will easily translate to all end user devices or business hardware, especially given how long the thin client message has taken to catch on with corporates, but in overall total cost of ownership, the practical life of a device has to be taken into account.

In this newly-green industry, it would be wrong if manufacturers didn't realize that robust, reliable, long-lasting devices could have as big a part to play in marketing their products in the future, as energy-conscious designs and hardware are playing today.

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