Ever since the early days of the Hollerith tabulating machine, computing has relied on electricity. Computers in the 1940s and 1950s were based on vacuum tubes, which used a lot of electricity and displaced enormous amounts of heat, thus requiring even more electricity to cool them down. As transistors and integrated circuits came into use, the amount of needed electricity went down but the amount of data and associated computing went up. IT continued to be a large power consumer.
As computers entered into the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, they transformed from a mainframe to a minicomputer, to a workstation, and finally, to the personal computer. We went from one computer in a room to several computers per rack. What we saved in size, we made up in volume. We were able to consolidate the number of computing centers that we built but increased the power and cooling needs of each computer room and data center. IT continued to be a decidedly “non-green” industry.
Through consolidation, we now build and operate mega data centers. According to the Data Center Journal, “Mega data centers sprawl over hundreds of thousands of square feet and can exceed 10 megawatts of power, with some approaching a million square feet or 100 megawatts” (http://www.datacenterjournal.com/dcj-magazine/the-rise-of-mega-data-centers/). These data centers provide computing and data storage for small and large companies as well as individuals through services such as Dropbox. Through consolidation, many of these data centers are placed in areas that enjoy cooler temperatures, thus reducing the cooling and power requirements. Many are also placed in areas that enjoy close proximity to inexpensive clean hydroelectric power and wind power. An increasing number of companies are reducing their data center exposure in areas served by coal power, partly to save costs and partly to reduce their environmental footprint.
The current trend is more towards mobile computing and away from desktop computing. This trend moves our client computing away from large fan-cooled systems, towards more efficient laptops, tablets, and smartphones. These battery-based computers still require electricity but are much more efficient than their desktop counterpart.
On the other hand, because of the diminished storage capacity of mobile systems, they rely on cloud computing and mega data centers for their processing and storage needs. The key to a greener IT future lies in maximizing the efficiency of data centers. Computer manufacturers such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard are innovating ways to cool computers through the use of increased airflow and even liquid cooling. Data center operators such as Google and Amazon are aggressively pursuing techniques such as virtual computing so that they reduce the physical computing footprint while increasing the amount of data that they can house and process. A gallery of Google data center technology http://www.google.com/about/datacenters/gallery/ shows the physical infrastructure that Google maintains. Businesses are trying to save money and reduce their computing and environmental footprint by consolidating their computing needs into cloud computing solutions. Data center providers are trying to save money and reduce their environmental footprint by reducing their power consumption. Together, we can all move toward greener, more sustainable computing.
What have you done lately to improve your computing impact on the environment?
Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT topics that keep him up at night.