Sustainable IT:

Research could lower IT costs and reduce carbon footprint

Any IT ecosystem designed with sustainability in mind will have the lowest costs to operate and will also have a net positive impact on the environment.

By Simon Firth, June 2008


How can we keep growing the world’s economies while adding very little to – or even reducing – our impact on the environment?

It’s one of the great dilemmas facing our planet today, says HP Labs Fellow Chandrakant Patel. It also presents IT researchers with an incredible opportunity, he argues. 

“Our contention,” explains Patel, director of HP’s new Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, “is that any IT ecosystem designed with sustainability in mind will have the lowest costs to operate and will also have a net positive impact on the environment.”

Measuring total energy consumed

That vision is at the heart of the new lab, which is developing IT technologies and business models that leave a lighter carbon footprint on the environment.

So how do you actually build a sustainable IT infrastructure?

First, you need to measure whether the changes you propose actually will lower the total energy consumed in the IT ecosystem – not just what it takes to operate or cool a product, but the energy cost of its entire life cycle, from raw materials extraction to manufacturing to disposal or reuse.

"We need to take a cradle-to-cradle view," Patel says, "which includes factoring in the available energy required in building, operating and recycling the products."

A new currency: Joules

To do so, researchers are developing tools for modeling, predicting, measuring and managing how IT solutions can power the sustainable transformation of business and society.

By providing a standard measure that encompasses such factors as carbon emissions and energy use, they intend to give IT companies the ability to assess the impact of their products, accurately identify ways to reduce the overall carbon footprint and compare the energy usage of their products and processes with those of their competitors.

What measure? Researchers argue that cost should be quantified not by dollars or yuans or rupees but by joules, a standard unit of energy.

"In a flat world, the only currency is going to be joules," says Patel.

Global community

As part of this effort, researchers are exploring the creation of an open, online resource for a global community of sustainability experts, scientists, engineers, and researchers to share sustainability information, tools and best practices.

They've already begun one such collaboration with the University of California at Berkeley to develop the Lifetime Exergy (available energy) Advisor, a tool that assesses the total environmental impact (from extraction to shipping to operation and recycling) of using different types of materials or different combinations of materials, different processes, and operational or reclamation techniques.

"The life cycle of any single product encompasses a great many processes, all consuming different amounts of available energy in different ways," Patel says. "No single person knows what they all are, so it will have to be an open innovation model to apply the collective wisdom of the world to enable a sustainable transformation."

Building on earlier research

At the same time, researchers are building on their groundbreaking research in Dynamic Smart Cooling technology (now an HP product) which can reduce cooling costs by 25 to 40 percent.

Their next goal is even more ambitious: To reduce the carbon footprint by 75 percent within the next five years – all while maintaining performance, reliability and uptime requirements.

They'll do that by examining the end-to-end management of the data center from the computing, power and cooling infrastructure to the IT services hosted by the data center. The research will span design, synthesis, operation and end-of-life for the data center and its components.

Ambitious experiments

Work has already begun at an experimental data center in Bangalore, India, where researchers and engineers consolidated 14 separate data centers into a single, 70,000-square-foot facility.

One of the most sensor-rich data centers in the world, the Bangalore center is expected to save 7,500 megawatt-hours (MWh) annually – equal to the power consumption of more than 750 U.S. homes – and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 7,500 tons annually.

Now, researchers are planning to extend that work with a larger experiment that would look at a wider variety of factors, including the unexplored areas of both supply- and demand-side management of the energy needs of data center.

New markets

"HP expects its near- and long-term sustainability research to open up new markets for the company," says Patel. "We're minimizing the total cost of data center operation because we are minimizing the consumption of available energy from both a materials and operations point of view."

Doing this, he believes, will produce a model HP can use to develop new IT services and grow in areas where IT hasn't penetrated in the past. "That," says Patel, "is where the real excitement is going to be."