What Is Green Computing?

7 min read

Learn how green computing reduces energy consumption and lowers carbon emissions from the design, use and disposal of technology products.

Green computing (also known as green IT or sustainable IT) is the design, manufacture, use and disposal of computers, chips, other technology components and peripherals in a way that limits the harmful impact on the environment, including reducing carbon emissions and the energy consumed by manufacturers, data centers and end-users. Green computing also encompasses choosing sustainably sourced raw materials, reducing electronic waste and promoting sustainability through the use of renewable resources.

The potential for green computing to have a positive impact on the environment is considerable. The information and communication technology (ICT) sector is responsible for between 1.8% and 3.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, data centers account for 3% of annual total energy consumption — an increase of 100% in the last decade.

“The energy demands and carbon output of computing and the entire ICT sector must be dramatically moderated if climate change is to be slowed in time to avoid catastrophic environmental damage,” according to a report published by the Association for Computing Machinery.

Every aspect of modern information technology — from the smallest chip to the largest data center — carries a carbon price tag, and green computing seeks to reduce that carbon price tag. Technology makers play a role in green computing, as do the corporations, organizations, governments and individuals that use technology. From massive data centers instituting policies to reduce energy consumption to individuals choosing to not use screen savers, green IT is multi-faceted and involves myriad decisions at every level.

What manufacturers can do

The decisions regarding going green begin long before products reach consumers. For example, product design and manufacturing are prime areas to lessen the impact of technology on the environment.

Chips that are more energy efficient — such as the chip designed by IBM and Samsung that can be stacked vertically or the IBM 2nm chip — are examples of innovative design that improves sustainability in computing. The energy consumption of a single computer chip may seem negligible, but when you multiply that by millions, it is possible to make significant reductions.

IBM has also identified systems that can reduce energy usage. Heterogenous structures, for instance, bring together frameworks like CPUs and graphics processing units (GPUs) to optimize power and energy efficiency.

One example is a computer named AiMOS (which stands for Artificial Intelligence Multiprocessing Optimized System), developed as part of a collaboration between IBM, Empire State Development and NY CREATEs. AiMOS is one of the most energy-efficient computers in existence, and it is used to develop more advanced and efficient computing chips, along with many other initiatives.

When designers take steps to reduce the amount of energy each product uses in operation and reduce the amount of heat those products produce, the carbon price tag of computing gets lower. For instance, sleep mode is one of the earliest examples of designers applying the concept of green computing to conserve energy.

Material selection is crucial, as well. Design that avoids using hazardous materials keeps those materials out of landfills later. Generating less waste in manufacturing devices and components, too, lessens the burden created by technology on the environment. Green manufacturing is a separate, but related, category of green technology that governs how the factory itself operates.

Other green computing actions manufacturers can take include lengthening the lifespan of computing devices and components so they don’t need to be replaced as frequently, increasing users’ ability to reuse products and making devices recyclable when they do need to be replaced.

What organizations can do

The largest gains in making IT more sustainable may be made by corporations, governments and other large organizations. Data centers, server rooms and data storage areas have a significant opportunity to run more efficiently.

In such areas, setting up hot and cold aisles is an important step toward greener computing because it reduces energy consumption and optimizes heating, ventilation and cooling. When automated systems designed to control temperature and similar conditions are combined with hot and cold aisles, emissions are further lowered. Cost savings from reducing energy use may eventually be realized, as well.

One simple step toward efficiency is to make sure things are turned off. Central processing units (CPUs) and peripheral equipment such as printers should be powered down when not in use. Scheduling blocks of time for specific tasks like printing means peripherals are only in use when they are needed.

Purchasing departments have a role to play in green computing, too. Choosing equipment that will last and consumes the least amount of energy necessary for the task to be performed are both ways to reduce the carbon footprint of IT. Notebooks use less energy than laptops, and laptops use less energy than desktop computers, for example.

What you can do

Green computing isn’t only for large organizations; you can play an important part in improving sustainability in the world of IT, as well. When many individuals make the choice to use functions like hibernate or sleep mode, the impact can be huge.

Whatever the device, employing the power management features reduces energy consumption, as does adjusting the screen brightness. Other ways to use less energy include turning off computers at the end of the day and keeping peripherals like speakers or printers turned off unless they are being used.

Refilling printer cartridges rather than purchasing new ones produces less waste and buying refurbished equipment rather than buying new reduces environmental impact. Safe disposal of electronic equipment improves sustainability and has security advantages

Just as purchasing departments should choose the most efficient equipment for the tasks to be performed, so should you. If a notebook or laptop can perform necessary tasks as well as a desktop computer, opt for the more efficient device. Energy Star ratings are a good guide for individuals purchasing new equipment.

The evolution of green computing

In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began the Energy Star Program in the United States, which aimed to promote and recognize energy efficiency. That program was the impetus for the adoption of the sleep mode function across the IT industry, and it brought about numerous other initiatives to increase efforts toward green computing. Energy Star-certified products must meet certain operation standards and have power management features that non-certified products may lack.

The program was furthered by a grant from the EPA to the Global Electronics Council, which resulted in the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). EPEAT is a product registry for products that are held to specific performance criteria, including materials used, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, product longevity, energy use and end-of-lifecycle management.

Before green computing, the IT industry tended to focus on producing smaller and faster devices, rather than on improving sustainability or reducing emissions. On-premises physical servers and hardware are associated with traditional computing, whereas cloud computing represents a move toward a more eco-friendly approach, with a stronger focus on efficiency.

Multiple initiatives to improve green computing standards through the creation of industry metrics related to sustainability exist, as do various certifications. The Green500 is a sub-list of the Top500, which lists supercomputers and the applications for which those computing systems are used. The Green500 ranks the supercomputers by energy efficiency. The Transaction Processing Performance Council (TCP) is a nonprofit organization that develops benchmarks for performance in the transaction processing industry. SPECPower also creates benchmarks, but for the power and performance characteristics of single- and multi-node servers with the goal of improving efficiency.

Challenges to implementing green computing

Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to advancing green computing is a lack of concern. Few people think of the IT industry when they think about climate change. Along with a general lack of concern, the IT market has developed in a way that prioritizes the development of smaller and faster components and devices rather than environmentally friendly ones.

The fact that technology evolves and changes very rapidly presents challenges in extending the lifecycle of products and requires technology makers to ensure each iteration continues to meet eco-friendly standards. Switching from a conventional set up in a factory, data center or corporate office to a green configuration requires an often-substantial up-front capital investment that represents an additional potential barrier.

Fragmented data and varying needs make decision-making difficult across the spectrum of IT end users. For example, speed and performance have a different value in a large data center than they do for a user at home.

At any given point in the lifecycle of a computing device, users must weigh various concerns. For a large organization, security may be a greater concern than environmental impact when it comes to servers. And for a college student, a smaller device that is easier to carry may be more important than having one that is fully recyclable.

Green computing and IBM

Green computing has the power to lessen the impact of computing on the environment. However, the ICT industry has an opportunity to do much more by using technology to benefit the environment through programs and systems designed to reduce power consumption, improve water management and embrace virtualization as a way to conserve energy.

Wherever you are on the path to green IT and sustainability within your organization, one practical first step that can make a noticeable and immediate impact on energy consumption is to ensure your applications only consume the resources they need, and nothing more. This materially reduces waste (cost and carbon footprint) in data centers and the public cloud. To help realize that goal, a solution like IBM Turbonomic Application Resource Management can help you continuously analyze applications' resource utilization to ensure applications get what they need to perform, while adhering to business policies. With a complete understanding of the application and infrastructure stack, you can automate actions and prevent resource congestion across a hybrid cloud environment, while initiating broader investments in sustainability.

Start your journey to assuring app performance at the lowest possible cost. Request your IBM Turbonomic demo today.

IBM is committed to green IT across the ecosystem of the business, including green design, operations and the use of its technology. The company has received numerous awards for sustainable products, energy use and environmental excellence. IBM's first corporate policy regarding environmental affairs was issued in 1971, and protecting the environment remains a key issue in worldwide operations.

Get started on your way to sustainable IT now.

Be the first to hear about news, product updates, and innovation from IBM Cloud