Last week a Twitter buddy posted a blog entry called “E-Waste not, Want not”. In it, she raises some very good points about how the technology we consider “green” isn’t always. She’s right, but fortunately things may not be as dire as it seems. As computers and other electronic devices become more and more important to our economy, communication, and recreation, efforts are being made to reduce the impact of these devices. For the devices themselves, the familiar rules apply: reduce, reuse, recycle.
The first way that reduction is being accomplished is the improved efficiency of the components. As processors become more powerful, they’re also becoming more efficient. In some cases, the total electrical consumption still rises, but much more slowly than it would otherwise. In addition, research and improvements in manufacturing technology are getting more out of the same space. Whereas a each compute core was on a separate chip, nowadays it’s not unusual to have several cores on a single processor the same size as the old single-core models. Memory and hard drives have increased their density dramatically, too. In the space of about 10 years, we’ve gone from “I’ll never be able to fill a 20 GB hard drive” to 20 GB is so small that few companies sell them anymore.
As the demand for computing increases, it might seem unreasonable to expect any reduction in the number of computers. However, some organizations are doing just that. Earlier this year, I replaced two eight-year-old computers I had been using with a single new computer that had more power than the two old ones combined. That might not be very impressive, but consider the case of Solvay Pharmaceuticals: by using VMWare‘s virtualization software, they were able to consolidate their servers by a 10:1 ratio, resulting in a $67,000 annual savings in power and cooling costs. Virtualization involves running one or more independent computers on the same hardware. This means, for example, that I can test software builds on several Linux variants and two versions of Windows without having to use separate physical hardware for each variation.
Thin clients are a related reduction. In the old days of computing, most of the work was done on large central machines and users would connect via dumb terminals: basically a keyboard and monitor. In the late 80′s and 90′s, the paradigm shifted toward more powerful, independent desktops. Now the shift is reversing itself in some cases. Many organizations are beginning to use thin clients powered by a powerful central server. The thin client contains just enough power to boot up and connect to the server. While this isn’t useful in all cases, for general office work it is often quite suitable. For example, my doctor has a thin client in each exam room instead of a full desktop computer. Thin clients provide reduction by extending the replacement cycle. While a desktop might need to be replaced every 3-4 years to keep an acceptable level of performance, thin clients can go 5-10 years or more because they don’t require local compute power.
Another way that the impact of computing is being reduced is by the use of software to increase the utilization of existing resources. This particular subject is near and dear to me, since I spend so much of my work life on this very issue. One under-utilized resource that can be scavenged is disk space. Apache’s Hadoop software includes the ability to pool disk space on a collection of machines into a high-throughput file system. For some applications, this can remove the need to purchase a dedicated file server.
In addition to disk space, compute power can be scavenged as well. Perhaps the most widely known is BOINC, which was created to drive the SETI@Home project that was a very popular screen saver around the turn of the millennium. BOINC allows members of the general public to contribute their “extra” cycles to actual scientific research. Internally, both academic and financial institutions make heavy use of software products like Condor to scavenge cycles. At Purdue University, over 22 million hours of compute time were harvested from the unused time on the research clusters in 2009 alone. By making use of these otherwise wasted compute hours, people are getting more work done without having to purchase extra equipment.
There’s such a wide range of what computers can be used for, and that’s a great thing when it comes to reusing. Computers that have become too low-powered to use as a desktops can find new life as file or web servers, networking gear, or as teaching computers. Cell phones, of course, seem to be replaced all the time (my younger cousins burn out the keyboards really quickly). Fortunately, there’s a good market for used cell phones, and there are always domestic violence shelters and the like that will take donations of old cell phones.
Of course, at some point all electronics reach the end of their useful lives. At that point, it’s time to recycle them. Fortunately, recycling in general is a common service provided by sanitation services these days. Some of those provide electronics recycling, as do many electronics stores. Recycling of electronics (including batteries!) is especially important because the materials are often toxic, and often in short supply. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a website devoted to the recycling of electronic waste.
It’s not just the devices themselves that are a problem. As I mentioned above, consolidating servers results in a large savings in power and cooling costs. Keeping servers cool enough to continue operating is a very energy-intensive. In cooler climates, outside air is sometimes brought in to reduce the need for large air conditioners. ComputerWorld recently had an article about using methane from cow manure to power a datacenter. This is old hat to the people of central Vermont.
It’s clear that the electronic world is not zero-impact. However, it has some positive social impacts, and there’s a lot of work being done to reduce the environmental impact. So while it may not be the height of nobility to include a note about not printing in your e-mail signature, it’s still better than having a stack of papers on your desk.