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Could information technology help save the planet?

April 25, 2014

Information technology companies already fulfill a pretty tall order, serving as a critical foundation for operations across many industries. As network systems and data centers continue to grow in size and importance, however, many organizations are seeking ways to make them more energy-efficient and ecologically responsible. These efforts might just play a critical role in curbing global warming trends and preserving natural resources. Nonetheless, there's still a lot of work to be done.

Tech centers as planet savers? 
It's not hard to imagine some of the ways that information technology can contribute to corporate efforts to be more sustainable. Digital systems can drastically reduce dependence on paper products, ink and other materials. Business intelligence and Big Data analytics offer insights that help firms to operate more efficiency and cut down on waste. New technologies, such as 3D printers, promise revolutionary ways to create and build objects.

Not all of these developments are inherently good for the climate, however. Even if businesses can cut down on their costs and energy usage by moving operations to the cloud, the huge data centers run by cloud providers can consume an astronomical amount of energy and create a substantial degree of heat. Greenpeace International, which monitors large organizations' ecological impact, noted that if cloud computing were a country, it would stand as sixth in the world for energy usage. Since the amount of digital data is growing at an exponential pace, technology resources will only become a more significant factor in sustainable energy ecosystems and environmental responsibility.

Some companies have already made headway with developing better methods for running data centers. These organizations—led by Google, Facebook and Apple—rely on alternate sources of energy such as solar and wind in their commitment to utilizing 100 percent renewable resources. Driven by consumer demand, decision-makers are prioritizing ways to make their companies more sustainable, and finding that it is, in fact, possible.

NewsFactor explained how other companies are also emphasizing sustainability in their IT networks and other technologies. Businesses that rely on cloud hosting instead of building their own server systems can seek out providers that have made a commitment to renewable resources. Other firms, such as Iceland-based GreenQloud, even make decisions about where they will build their data centers based on the availability and accessibility of sustainable options, the source explained.

Still a long way to go 
Although some companies have made headway with transitioning to renewable energy sources and optimizing the efficiency of their data centers, there's still plenty of progress to be made for an industry that makes up such a huge chunk of energy consumption. As TechTarget emphasized, these considerations must also include cooling methods, since data centers generate an extraordinary amount of heat. For businesses interested in seeing cost-saving benefits from using energy more efficiently, part of the challenge in creating greener IT resources is that it usually takes at least three years to see a return on investment, the source noted. Additionally, there still needs to be a significant amount of innovation and development to create technology that runs as efficiently as organizations would like.

"Refrigeration hasn't changed much since we started putting blocks of ice in the ice box in the 1900s. A lot of the improvements [in cooling technologies] are just marketing hype," Chris McLean, director of design and construction for the multi-tenant data center operator Markley Group, told TechTarget.

To this end, some firms are exploring new possibilities, such as cooling conducted on a per-suite basis, chilled water systems, colocation services and fuel cells, the source noted. These developments will still take time to make significant headway into IT network systems, but with tech giants such as Microsoft leading the way, IT firms could make a substantial contribution to taking better care of the planet.

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