A timely proposal for IT energy conservation

Tom Yager gives some tips

I take it as a point of pride that InfoWorld is uniquely outspoken on matters of green computing, and that my dedication to that cause predates InfoWorld's. When I write about it, I stay away from suggesting that there is any sort of "save the planet" global imperative that should drive IT towards consolidation and the purchase of more energy-efficient equipment. By pursuing energy-conscious policies, what a company conserves is capital. As energy prices inevitably rise, kilowatts, BTUs, and square feet rise above everyday concerns. I reach out to the pragmatists with the message that conservation makes fiscal sense. I don't mind sneaking my agenda through the side door. Journalists must always be aware of the cost of taking sides on a controversial issue, ever conscious of the fact that doing so alienates a portion of one's audience. I can't write for those who see conservation as a purely fiscal issue, because that encourages offsetting the impact of a lazy approach to energy conservation with reductions in head count, withdrawal of community projects, raising the prices of products and services, or targeting a narrower, more elite market that can afford to underwrite energy waste as a cost of doing business. Frankly, the trouble with dressing my energy agenda in a suit of pragmatism is that it isn't getting the message across. While I'm preaching consolidation as a means of reducing energy costs, too much of IT, and too many of the server vendors who supply it, use that call to justify overconfiguration. A four-socket, 16-core rack server with a pair of 1-kilowatt power supplies can do the job of two eight-core servers with a pair of 700-watt power supplies. The trouble is, those eight-core servers are only a year old. Buying a bigger, hotter server isn't about consolidation; those eight-core servers aren't taken off-line. The new server is added to the pool of virtual machines that are ready for duty at a millisecond's notice. We may ride into the purchase of higher-density servers under the flag of consolidation, but we typically skip the second half of that exercise that involves turning off the machines we intended to replace. It's not helping. It's tempting to push conservation off on the big, heartless companies that are least likely to do it, but like all social change, this one needs a grassroots kick, and I have an idea. I call it the "green delay". Customers that hit your website, along with internal users that poll for email every 10 to 30 seconds, demand near-instantaneous responses to their requests. When a website takes more than seven seconds to be ready for interaction, it's said that a great many users will go elsewhere rather than wait the few additional seconds it might take to put up clickable buttons. Sure, time is money, but when did we start calculating the value of our time in increments of seconds or even milliseconds? I think it's time to consider the flip side of the time/money equation: Time is carbon. Our impatience with technology isn't about money, and on the scale of seconds or milliseconds, is not justifiable as business necessity or competitive advantage. Whoever I am, whoever you are, we are the people who need our data right away. We need file shares to mount instantly. Our SQL query tables must populate instantly so that we can start scrolling through 500 results a few seconds sooner. Let someone else who doesn't pay as much for a particular service or technology do the waiting. The cell network is plugged up with all those consumer voice calls, and my IM and BlackBerry messages, and my mobile browser sessions, aren't going through fast enough to suit me. I realise that for a guilt trip to work, it needs to be more concrete and specific. I have a specific proposal, a painless one that actually addresses two problems at once. Outside first-shift business hours, email servers don't need to offer a quick response. Email protocols were designed to accommodate multi-hop modem links between sites and batch transfers scheduled several hours apart. In other words, the worldwide network of email servers is already optimised for green operation. Let's take advantage of that. Instead of treating email like instant messages when recipients can't possibly read them, let there be latency. Figure out how few physical servers need to be online outside business hours to ensure that messages from other time zones are received by the start of the next business day. It's OK for email connections to time out because fewer servers are on a hair trigger to answer SMTP connection requests. Email transfer protocols require that servers keep attempting delivery, not for seconds or hours, but for days. The beauty is, your users won't notice. You can crank email capacity up again when your people are back on the job. If you make email wait, you gain another benefit. Spammers have zero patience. When a chunk of spam doesn't get to you on the first try, it moves on to a more eager target. Email-enabled attacks, like dictionary scans of user names, require fast response to each attempt. Wouldn't it be great if, by IT adopting a more ecologically sound approach, more spammers slammed into our drawbridges? There I go again, presenting a pragmatic angle on social responsibility. I can't make this one too easy. The important part of any IT conservation effort is to set the goal of powering servers down as often as, and for as long as, possible. It's nice that a server with a 1,000-watt power supply can idle at 300 watts. A server should idle at zero watts, and it can. Modern servers will power down and back up on preset schedules. Intelligent power controllers, like iBootBar from DataProbe, can control system power via script, telnet, modem, and browser interfaces so that servers that need help can power up other servers on the LAN. The point is, every second spent waiting for a message or a website can make a difference. Time really is valuable. We can't take for granted that we have an unlimited supply of it regardless of our actions.

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