Tag Archives: sustainable computing

From Green to Blue… and Beyond?

Today’s post is written by Jake Pollack, program manager for the UO Sustainability Leadership Certificate Program.

Over the past few years I have carefully followed not only the colors that are affiliated with sustainability, and their implications, but how sustainability is paired (or not) with technology. So, while it may seem elementary (or primary in the case of blue, and secondary in the case of green—apologies for the educator jokes) the colors point to deeper implications of culture and the blending of different approaches to sustainability and technology. Back in 2009, when I read Andrew Kirk’s Counterculture Green, I started thinking about the historical aspects of the traditional rift between the environmental movement and the world of technology. Having grown up as a nature lover and digital native, I understood the tension between appreciating ecological systems and playing video games, but this, of course, is a much deeper discussion that can’t be covered in one blog entry.

However, what I can chart are some of the recent trends that are promising and point out a few challenges that I see in the future as we move ever deeper into virtual realms where machine-to-machine conversation is the norm, and our dependency on technology is assumed as “natural.” The first of these is the realization that cloud computing has an enormous environmental impact, whether you measure it in terms of water, e-waste, energy consumption, or any other concrete service that is required for large server centers. A recent webinar on Sustainable Industries describes this infrastructure and examples of the continuous improvement and innovation required to make these ventures efficient. A GreenBiz article describes a Stanford study which found that one-tenth of all electricity consumed in the US goes towards the Internet, and reports on the Future of Internet Power group, which is a response by Adobe, eBay, Facebook, HP, salesforce.com, and Symantec to “identify and publicize best practices around low-carbon power-sourcing for data centers in the United States.” Finally, Apple recently announced it will build a giant solar farm to power its Nevada datacenter.

This aspect of greening the cloud is important as big data seems to be on course to grow continuously, and it shows that the major players in both hardware and cloud-based software recognize this as an opportunity in the midst of an unpredictable and volatile energy market. The main challenge actually goes back to the deeper implications of culture and thinking about what all this computing power is actually used for and who is using it. In other words, the question remains whether to put this incredible computing power to use for further preservation and maintenance of the living systems of our planet, or to continue disseminating kitten videos across the Internet. At this time, that seems an oversimplification, but my guess is that in the future, we’ll be paying much more careful attention to the end uses of data and have to make some difficult decisions about these results. In light of cities moving to models of resilience and the recent release of President Obama’s climate commitments, there will be major implications for technology resources as well as the information that is passed through those networks.


Jake Pollack

Jake has worked in sustainability leadership settings internationally for the last six years in higher education and is currently the program manager for the UO Sustainability Leadership Certificate Program. He has mentored and trained students and professionals in aspects of sustainability ranging from cross-cultural communication to organizational transformation. His PhD research examined interdisciplinary and collaborative models of sustainability and a new triple bottom line of resilience, integrity, and commitment. Though his work in the field began in ecovillages and grassroots centers of innovation, he is now interested in the scale of cities and cultivating a cross-sector platform for professionals who wish to accelerate and incubate projects that address our most significant sustainability challenges.

A Path to a Greener IT

Business man with laptop in green fieldEver 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.

Current Trends

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?


About Kelly BrownAuthor Kelly Brown

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.