Reduce, Reuse, Recycle in the Data Center, Too

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    Do IT People Really Care About Green IT?

    Study finds that IT organizations still consider power consumption secondary to performance.

    The enterprise industry has paid a lot of attention to green IT in recent years. Energy consumption in particular has emerged as a top issue in the data center, not only because of the enormous amount of electricity that modern infrastructure consumes, but the costs devoted to ensure near 100 percent uptime and availability.

    But power issues are only part of the equation. A much tougher problem is e-waste — the literally millions of tons of spent hardware that makes its way into landfills and incinerators each year due to normal refresh cycles. Many of these devices contain dangerous chemicals such as lead, mercury, bromine and chromium, which can leach into ground water or escape into the atmosphere.

    To their credit, many large organizations have instituted hardware donation or recycling programs, giving devices a longer shelf-life than a simple three-year depreciation would otherwise provide. But the advent of new generations of small, mobile devices is complicating those efforts, in part because it becomes unclear who owns and is ultimately responsible for these new modes of access.

    Australian service provider Dimension Data is hoping to ease this situation a bit down under with a new e-waste removal service within its Technology Lifecycle Management Assessment program. The company helps identify environmentally friendly means of hardware disposal, while at the same time handling a number of other end-of-life issues such as security, data removal and inventory tracking. The company notes that e-waste is expected to double in Australia between 2010 and 2015, adding more than 60 million tons to the nation’s landfills.

    Of course, to catch more mice you need to build a better mousetrap. That’s part of the thinking behind several odd notions coming out of Facebook recently, including biodegradable hardware. You read that right: The company is sponsoring a contest at Purdue University to develop sustainable server designs, which would include new chassis made of compostable materials. Inner workings would still consist of traditional components, but if those can be harvested and repurposed for other devices, servers may fall out of the waste disposal chain altogether. It may be a long shot, but if we don’t try we’ll never know.

    On a more practical level, one of the best ways to reduce e-waste is to cut down the amount of hardware provisioned in the first place. Web retail firm Alibris found this out with the deployment of flash memory in its largely disk-based storage system. The company ultimately replaced two full racks containing 34 servers and 144 hard disks, with two mirrored servers — a 94 percent reduction. Of course, disposal of the old units still must be handled carefully, lest the streamlining process produce a short-term surge in e-waste.

    One way to do that would be to rededicate ourselves to the repair and reuse of old devices and components, according to Kyle Wiens, CEO of repair manual firm iFixit. Not only would this reduce landfill deposits, but it would produce badly needed jobs for workers whose livelihoods have largely shifted to Asia. Dell and Goodwill are seeing the fruits of these kinds of efforts already. The two embarked on the Reconnect program back in 2003 with a single refurbishment operation in central Texas. By 2008, the program had expanded to nine states and employs more than 250 people.

    Hardware recycling may not be as glamorous as power and cooling management and experimentation with advanced efficiency techniques, but it is nonetheless a vital piece of the environmental puzzle. And it shows the world that the IT industry is interested not only in its own bottom line, but the broader community as well.

    Arthur Cole
    Arthur Cole
    With more than 20 years of experience in technology journalism, Arthur has written on the rise of everything from the first digital video editing platforms to virtualization, advanced cloud architectures and the Internet of Things. He is a regular contributor to IT Business Edge and Enterprise Networking Planet and provides blog posts and other web content to numerous company web sites in the high-tech and data communications industries.

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