Technologies That Save You Some ‘Green’

Eight technologies that help preserve the environment while preserving your budget: Web conferencing, electronic documents, LCD monitors, thin clie...
John EdwardsAugust 18, 2004

It’s a win-win proposition: save money, save the planet. Companies today are discovering many ways to better balance energy consumption, waste disposal, employee productivity and morale, and their budgetary concerns. Here’s our sampling of green technologies that can save you some “green,” too; share your own suggestions at [email protected].

Web Conferencing: More Face Time

Without leaving his office in San Antonio, David Alexander can safely say that Web conferencing lets him “meet and see — face-to-face — more of my customers and the other people I work with than I ever did before.” Adds Alexander, a telecom and multimedia analyst at technology research firm Frost & Sullivan, “It’s definitely a replacement for business travel” — especially when soaring fuel costs make it so expensive to shuttle employees to meetings, seminars, presentations, and training sessions.

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If you haven’t kept up with Web-conferencing technology — like NetMeeting from Microsoft or eBoardroom Suite from eBoardroom — over the past several years, you might be surprised to find that it’s much more than the Internet equivalent of two-way TV. Not only can users see and hear the moderator and other participants, often they can also take advantage of support services such as document and program sharing, whiteboards, polling, and instant messaging. Perhaps best of all, many Web-conferencing products record the meeting and allow users to play it back at their convenience. “Paper notes go only so far,” says Alexander. “With Web conferences, you can go back and see what you missed.”

Add a personal computer with a $50 camera and a broadband Internet connection, and you have the building blocks for what’s become a $600 million industry, notes Alexander. Not only can Web-conferencing technology improve employee productivity, it may also boost morale by reducing the time that employees spend on the road — that is, my helping them to feel more productive, too. Alexander has seen proof of the technology’s relationship-building ability in his own work; it adds a personal touch, he says, “that’s almost as good as sitting across the table from someone.”

Electronic Documents: The ”Less Paper” Office

Printed documents remain popular because they make good use of a straightforward technology — albeit an old one — that allows information to be easily delivered, shared, and viewed. “Paper itself provides a unique user interface,” says Robert Bauer, chief technology officer for Xerox Global Services in Palo Alto, California. “People still like to print out very long emails, for example, because they’re just too hard to deal with on the screen, too hard to use.” It’s little surprise that although the promise of the “paperless office” has been around for at least 20 years, the paper still keeps piling up.

The “less paper office,” however, is a worthwhile goal for any organization. The casual creation and sharing of printed documents may never be eliminated — and shouldn’t be, if such a change would hamstring productivity — businesses can move archival files, such as contracts and other formal documents, into electronic formats. Even a modest step in this direction can trim your paper and filing costs, cut waste, and even reduce recyclables. “Although recycling is a good thing,” notes Bauer, “that takes energy, too.”

Perhaps the biggest concern working against the widespread adoption of electronic documents is the fear of trace-free forgeries. On the horizon: a new generation and document creation and archiving programs that contain built-in security safeguards. Adobe Systems, for example, is developing a security policy server for its Acrobat software, which will include a Java application that requires the proper credentials before an employee can altering a file. “There’s no reason why electronic documents can’t be made as secure as paper documents,” says Bauer.

LCD Monitors: A Display of (Less) Power

Conventional cathode-ray-tube (CRT) displays are rapidly giving way to a new generation of efficient liquid-crystal-display (LCD) monitors. About time; CRTs waste enormous amounts of energy and contribute tons of toxic wastes to landfills.

“There is no question about the eco-friendliness of an LCD over a CRT, particularly in the matter of power consumption,” says Toni Duboise, a senior analyst at Current Analysis, a technology research company located in La Jolla, California. The power saving — which ranges between 50 percent and 60 percent, according to Duboise — offers a benefit not only to the environment but also to your bottom line. “In the long term,” she adds, “the power savings will justify the additional investment costs.”

And those costs are coming down: LCD prices have dropped to about the same levels that similarly sized CRTs occupied just a few years ago. “Non-promotional prices are at an average of $300 for 15-inch models, $400 for 17-inch models, and $700 for 19-inch models,” says Duboise. Unfortunately, the sudden wholesale disposal of old CRTs — which can’t be easily recycled — has inundated landfills, where the monitors slowly release toxic chemicals such as lead (up to eight pounds per unit), phosphor, and barium. That flood will gradually subside as CRTs are supplanted by LCDs, which contain fewer toxic substances and are more easily recycled.

Thin Clients: Desktops on a Diet

Another way to lighten the landfill load (and your company’s budgetary burden) would be to switch from “fat clients” to “thin clients.” “Client,” in this sense, simply refers to a computer on the receiving end of information that’s doled out from another computer, called the “server.” Personal computers are considered “fat” because each employee’s PC stores the word-processing software, spreadsheets, and other applications that he or she uses.

The idea behind thin-client computing, also known as server-based computing, is to give each employee an inexpensive workstation stripped down to the bare essentials: control devices (for example, a keyboard and mouse) and a display. The applications could be used by each client computer, but they would reside only on a server — down the hall or halfway around the world, wherever is most effective. This server-based model has tempted businesses for several years, and recent advances in support technologies suggest that its time may be at hand.

The advantages are compelling, says Kevin Strohmeyer, senior product manager for the Sun Ray thin-client line at Sun Microsystems. “Let’s say a PC consumes maybe 50 or 60 watts,” he says. “With a thin-client system, you’re looking at maybe 15 or 20 watts. So in a corporation like Sun, with 29,000 to 30,000 of these thin clients deployed, we believe we save anywhere from $5 to $9 million in power cost in just a year’s time.” Server-based applications also require fewer people to install and maintain individual systems dispersed across an enterprise, observes Strohmeyer: “When you need to upgrade your software, put in a faster processor, or add more memory, it happens in the data-center room.”

“We believe that the life expectancy of a thin client is over 10 years,” adds Strohmeyer, “because there are no moving parts and there’s nothing to wear out.” Considering that the current PC replacement cycle runs about three to five years, a longer cycle would benefit companies that didn’t need to buy new machines — and it would benefit the landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities that didn’t need to cope with so much discarded hardware.

Blade Servers: Saving by Sharing

Fitted inside a rack-mountable enclosure, each blade server — often simply called a “blade” — typically includes its own memory, storage, and processors. Unlike traditional, stand-alone servers, however, the individual blades in each enclosure save energy by sharing a power supply, cooling system, network cables, and other support components; diskless blades share storage devices, too. Businesses also reap additional payoffs from greater reliability, simpler system management, and a smaller “footprint” in the server room.

A new generation of blade-server software promises to allocate resources more efficiently, so businesses can run fewer servers and use less power, says Jeffrey J. Hewitt, an analyst with technology research firm Gartner in Stamford, Connecticut. Server manufacturers who’ve joined the blade bandwagon include well-known names like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun as well as smaller players such as RackSaver and RLX Technologies. And no wonder, says Hewitt: just under 30,000 blades were shipped in 2002, but that number has jumped to about 169,000 in 2003 and to a projected 340,000 in 2004.

A rack of blade servers, it’s true, generally costs more than the stand-alone counterpart. IBM’s Xeon-powered BladeCenter HS20, for example, is priced at about $2,700 including the software; the equivalent stand-alone IBM xSeries 225 costs $1,400. Despite a name that rings of science fiction, however, companies that adopt blade-server technology usually recover real-world savings that make up the difference; the power savings do right by the environment, too.

Fuel Cells: More-Benign Batteries

Notebook computers, cellular phones, PDAs, and other mobile devices around the office run on batteries, a time-tested technology that provides a reasonable balance between power, cost, size, and weight. What’s less reasonable is that batteries contain heavy metals and other toxic substances including lead, cadmium, nickel, lithium, and mercury, all which can cause environmental problems after they find their way into landfills.

By comparison, micro fuel cells (MFCs) generate electricity through a chemical reaction between oxygen and a fuel such as hydrogen or methanol. “The fuel can be made from a wide range of comparatively benign materials,” says David Hart, a researcher at London’s Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. “They could provide up to eight hours [of power] on a single charge of cartridge fuel,” adds Hart, “and recharge in seconds.”

Roadblocks to widespread adoption of MFCs include cell size, the lack of a universal connection standard, and customer education. Micro fuel cells will also raise safety and security concerns when users bring devices that contain volatile fluids into buildings and onto public transportation. Potential savings are another wildcard. Even rechargeable batteries will eventually wear out, while micro fuel cells can be infinitely replenished — but chances are that MFC fuel will cost more than the equivalent jolt of electricity used to recharge a battery. Despite these concerns, several Japanese firms plan to begin marketing micro fuel cells — and MFC-compatible devices — as early as next year.

Autonomic Computing: Better Care, Less Repair

Imagine a computer that could monitor itself, upgrade itself, even repair itself. Welcome to the world of autonomic computing, named for the function of the human central nervous system that controls your heartbeat, temperature, respiration, and other vital processes without conscious thought. Its goal is to make computer operation simpler and more reliable “as we move toward global, 7×24, highly-distributed, multivendor environments,” says David Bartlett, IBM’s director of autonomic computing.

Although fully autonomic systems are still many years away, autonomic-type functions are already being built into some computers. IBM’s ThinkPad X40 notebook computer, for example, includes accelerometer circuitry that can sense a potentially damaging fall while the system is plummeting toward the ground. During the fall, the computer automatically raises the hard drive’s read/write heads and parks them in a safe position, reducing the possibility of a data-destroying crash.

Since autonomic computing promises better reliability, it should lengthen the time between hardware upgrades, so fewer computers will find their way to the junkyard. The technology should also reduce the need for an expensive backup infrastructure, which means less hardware, fewer people to maintain it, less electricity to run it, and often fewer facilities to hold it all. That sits well with Bartlett, who holds a bachelor’s degree in botany and is a self-confessed tree lover. “It kind of hurts,” he says, “when I see warehouses replacing forests.”

Grid Computing: Putting Idle Resources to Work

Getting onto the grid is another way that businesses can access more processing horsepower with less hardware. The technology uses the Internet to locate computers running at less than full capacity and creates a powerful “virtual computer” from these underutilized systems — wherever they may be.

IBM and Oracle are among the companies maintaining that the technology can help reduce computing “waste” and lower costs, too. “Grid computing allows you to provision resources when you need them,” says Benny Souder, Oracle’s vice president of distributed database development. “For example, the general ledger is idle most of the time until you get to the period close,” notes Souder. “Then you need to do a whole lot of processing. That’s where grid computing really shows its value.” And the rest of the time? “You would have fewer total components in your data center,” says Souder, which means less hardware, lower energy and other support costs, and all the consequent benefits for the environment.

Research firm International Data Corp. forecasts that the grid-computing market is on the verge of major expansion that will drive sales north of $12 billion by 2007. Souder finds that number conservative, but like many of the people interviewed for this article, he also believes that the growth of green technologies will be driven by the need to maximize profits. “I don’t think businesses are fundamentally out to spoil the environment, but I don’t think most of them fundamentally exist to save the environment, either,” says Souder. “If they can find a way to be more efficient, if they can operate their business at a higher ecological level, they will do so because it’s in their best financial interest.”

John Edwards is a freelance writer based in Gilbert, Arizona.

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