Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The dark side of Green I.T.

To begin some definitions sustainability:

 Quite often Green I.T. strategy (if you are not familiar with the concept check Green I.T for dummies by HP) is a key aspect of sustainable efforts of companies . However these efforts , while positive when we look at them at the micro level of the economy and the environment. They tend to have a negative impact at the macro level if they are not taken far enough. In order to make the problem more easily palpable i will use the all time favourite: virtualization.

Virtualization allow  the combination of  several physical systems into virtual ones onto a single, powerful system, thereby unplugging the original hardware hence reducing power and cooling consumption.

The benefit of virtualization is rather obvious  when you concider that a server produce  4 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually. Hence, using virtualization reduce the carbon footprint and TCO per service provided. Does virtualization  constitute a sustainable strategy?

Sadly, most of the time, companies  forget that Green I.T. efforts impact go beyond data center, organizational and business efficiency.  If they look at the figures they will quickly realise that by reducing their ecological footprint per service or product they contribute to a reinforce the negative trends on our environment at a global scale.

Why ?  Simple , Economics.  The Key word here is "lower": lower TCO ,  Lower cost  to provide a service , lower the production cost, etc...  Green I.T. is  touted as  good for consumers, businesses, the economy overall, and the environment because it can make service more efficient and, by extension, less expensive. When a something becomes less expensive it automaticaly widen your potential customer base form the one you had before. Most of the time this  drive up the demand for your products, which in return requires you expand your operation in order to cope (good for business). The problem arise from the size of the additional demand.  As you can see in the following figure, the income repartition is "similar" to an inverse exponential function.   


 So, every time you lower the price of a certain product, the potential demand increase exponentially! Which means that if a company wants to stay  carbon neutral while coping with the increased demand, this company needs to make exponential efforts to "green" its operation. At that moment the law of diminishing returns kicks in ( see figure below),  the ever increasing  cost of  the greening  operation start to hurt the company profits margin, which leads to its discontinuation.

To be sustainable a company has to understand that it needs become first efficient and then  transition to  become sufficient. However , companies quite often stop at being efficient, claiming to be sustainable and dismiss any further efforts as being unnecessary and counter-productive. By doing so, they are "sustainable washing" themselves.

Worse, these limited Green I.T. Environmental improvements at a micro level (understand company) increase  the rate of degradation at the macro level (planet). Because the rewards for an efficiency gain is substantial surpluses, enough boost economic prosperity of the company and, most significantly, enough surplus to allow further investment leading to yet more surplus. 

Not to mention that all this is also exacerbated by I.T. becoming a utility ( understand cloud).

The Efficiency strategy through green I.T. is often destructive in practice. To become truly sustainable , companies and the society will need to accept that  economic  growth is no longer possible.


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