A call for a ‘radical rethink’ about reducing the energy consumption of technology was amongst the topics discussed at a special Green IT BCS conference this month. 'Achieving Net-Zero: A guide for companies' explored how small and medium enterprises can become more environmentally sustainable. BCS unveiled a training programme to help firms in their journey to Net Zero as Grant Powell reports.

"IT has a huge role to play in addressing the climate issues we face", said Claire Penketh, BCS Senior Press Officer and event chair. "The IT industry can help us reach Net Zero targets through its knowledge and expertise. And while this might seem daunting, we hope this event provides the tools and information to help companies start thinking and working differently to meet sustainability objectives."

Fast tech growth and increasing waste

The first of the day's speakers was Russell MacDonald, Chief Technologist with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). Russell began by explaining that one of the central issues with technology is that it keeps growing exponentially, using more data, demanding greater storage capacity and requiring more bandwidth to operate over time.

"IT is the fastest growing industry on the planet. Subsequently, the emissions generated are increasing, which is a real problem when we're at such a critical point in our planet's climate crisis that we should reduce them. Power capacity is also increasing rapidly, creating massive uncertainty from the National Grid around future demand. Emerging technologies and modern solutions such as artificial intelligence (AI), 3D rendering platforms and the like are massive energy consumers." The solution, he said, comes from managing technology, ensuring the elimination of waste and maximising the efficiency of the data and systems we use daily.

"The UK generates the second greatest amount of e-waste per capita", Russell revealed, "and when we begin to look at how we utilise services and what we do with our data, we have fallen into some incredibly bad habits. Moving data around uses energy, and studies show that we typically only use 32% of the data that we transfer and store.

"This raises a huge question: do we need 100% availability of everything at all times? There is even a very apt description now: 'zombie servers'. These servers haven't performed useful work in the last six months or more."

He said that reducing the over-provision and under-utilisation of technology will ensure that IT processing power and storage capabilities are maximised with fewer IT assets and the lowest input in energy.

Data centre design can reduce energy loss by carefully considering why, where and how data is stored. He added it was also good for business: "Businesses that make real efforts from a sustainability perspective will also find themselves in a much stronger position within the market", Russell explained. "Linking businesses to environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) makes them much more able to compete in a shifting market where values around diversity, ethics and inclusion now play a fundamental role. Positioning an organisation as a force for good marks it as a stronger-performing business, with values that will resonate with the modern customer."

Effective measurements and greener coding

"Sustainability has its roots everywhere and affects absolutely everything", began the afternoon's second speaker, Alex Bardell, Chair of the BCS Green IT Specialist Group. "Sustainability is increasingly important to the latest generation of employees and customers. And, from the point of view of investors, it's becoming imperative that companies operate in accordance with ESG goals and objectives."

For example, Alex said, businesses are starting to make the right moves, adhering to the UN's sustainable development goals. Yet, as things stand, it seems unlikely that the UK will meet its 2030 target pledge to cut emissions by 68% by 2030. This is where the IT function has a powerful role to play.

"It starts with ensuring that data centres, servers and networks are running as efficiently and effectively as possible while still maximising computing power. There needs to be a greater focus on measuring direct emissions. Only with accurate figures can we understand exactly where urgent improvements must be made."

Alex then drilled down into the websites and applications companies run to examine coding itself: "While many companies invest significant time and money into making their websites and applications as powerful and efficient as possible, this is often a task carried out without consideration for the wider picture. An unnecessary drain on resources can be avoided by writing more efficient code, using less power-hungry programming languages and automating manual tasks using intelligent software."

Changing business models

John Booth, Managing Director of Carbon3IT and Vice Chair of the BCS Green IT Specialist Group focused on data centre governance with a look at the downward pressure now being put upon data centres through the introduction of EU legislation, the Taxonomy Climate Delegated Act (TCDA), the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD). John then explored the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres and its 160-plus best practice tips for helping data centre managers improve efficiency, reduce energy bills and prepare for the legislation.

"It's now time for a radical rethink", John explained. "Many of you in attendance will think that we are facing an impossible task to meet Net Zero goals, but I see an opportunity here. It's a fact that business models will have to change. Rather than continuing to be bound to a consumptive operating model, it's time to take the leap to one that promotes a circular economy. And carbon taxes are coming, so the time to act is now. We can no longer expect our twentieth-century design principles and thinking to address modern concerns relating to climate change and Net Zero."

John also reasoned that staff need not only to be trained to 'keep the lights on' but also to play a part in the fundamental redesign of data centre engineering. Through consideration around the best locations, materials, security and cooling, and the re-evaluation of the entire energy delivery chain, from the power station to chip, the data-centre industry needed to be in a much stronger position as tighter legislation brought demands for a full justification of energy use.

Challenges, concerns, business impact and next steps

Following the talks, delegates went into three breakout workshop sessions. The first group tackled the topic of emissions reporting under Russell's guidance. Discussing the three reporting categories, or scopes, they also covered the role of a circular economy in the IT sector and some of the critical decisions that can improve business sustainability. Meanwhile, John led a workshop on data centres, how data is stored and what legislation was needed to keep emissions low. In the third group, helmed by Alex, delegates discussed the importance of planning and investing in sustainable software and infrastructure.

Each workshop also considered the following discussion points: What challenges do you face? What are your concerns about transitioning to the green economy? What do you think the impact will be on your business? What are you going to do next?

Reporting challenges

Feeding back to the entire group, Russell's team said that the current infrastructure needed to be set up with reporting in mind. The group urged businesses to discuss this matter in detail with their data providers. They also concluded that making carbon footprint data available to developers is essential to help keep sustainability concerns front of mind when creating new applications. Beyond this, changing habits was vital.

"We've got so used to 'always on' IT", elaborated Russell, "when a simple return to the batch processing of non-urgent workloads would make a significant difference from an energy and e-waste perspective. Looking for ways to improve existing processes and find greener ways of working is no longer a nice-to-have; it should be an absolute priority."

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Alex's team raised the importance of attracting young developers to help develop greener code, avoiding the use of inefficient languages. "New frameworks can be developed to lead IT professionals towards a more sustainable software development methodology", began Alex. "And as green code becomes commercialised, the proliferation of such code across platforms such as GitHub will increase its useability and popularity among IT and coding communities."

John's group agreed about many of the challenges associated with running a sustainable data centre; cooling issues, the efficiency of old versus new tech, non-sustainable forms of code and even the threat presented by rogue employees. But they also identified many of the solutions. These included storing data within smaller urban-based environments rather than huge inefficient sites and using renewable energy that could be sold back to the grid.

Learn more about green technology

Ben Jeffery, BCS Product Manager, introduced BCS's new collection of Green IT continuous professional development modules. He said they were developed to help demystify the subject, and the modules were suitable for those considering changes to those already actively engaged with green technology. Each module can be taken online, typically lasts an hour, and includes a knowledge test and associated Digital Badge. The modules are a great stepping stone for organisations to support greener practices and targets. The modules will be released and available for purchase in early autumn.

As the event closed with a networking session and a chance to chat more informally with speakers, it was the Chair of BCS Central London Branch, Dalim Basu, who provided some closing thoughts for the day: "The focus on green IT represents the start of a new journey for BCS. This event has been great for educating a commercial audience about some of the key issues we face within the industry. We now need to reach out across academia to spearhead change at the college and university levels. This approach will help ensure that tomorrow's IT and computing graduates enter the industry with the correct mindset around sustainability and can help ensure a greener future through their actions."