Green-tech trends from 2008

From the emergence modular datacenters to the advance of green products, 2008 proved another strong year for green tech

Like 2007, 2008 proved an eventful year for the world of green technology. The reasons green tech has had such staying power are pretty clear: energy prices continue to soar, organizations continue to struggle with insufficient power and space in their datacenters, and concern over the state of the environment continues to grow.

With 2008 nearly at an end, let's look back at some of the trends in green tech, ones that will most certainly spill over in 2009.

1. Modular datacenters evolved. This year, we bore witness to a shift in the way some organizations are thinking about building datacenters. Rather than designing a complete, fully powered datacenter facility from the ground up, vendors have started pushing modular add-as-you-grow design. The idea is, why add all that power and cooling to a facility that won't be fully populated with machines for weeks, months, or more?

In some case, these modular datacenters take the form of "datacenters in a box." Vendors such as Sun and Rackable Systems fit storage and hundreds, sometimes thousands of servers into one large shipping container with its own cooling system. Microsoft, using Rackable containers, started building a datacenter outside Chicago with more than 150 containerized datacenters, each holding 1,000 to 2,000 servers.

These modular datacenters don't come in storage containers, though. Microsoft, for example, has touted Model T methods to datacenters: The approach uses a modular design in which standard units of computing, cooling, and electrical equipment are delivered to a facility on the back of a truck and assembled on site. Similarly, IBM -- which also offers a datacenter in a box -- introduced its EMDC (Enterprise Modular Data Center) this year. Each standardized EMDC module starts at a minimum of 5,000 square feet, including racking systems, raised floor, power, and cooling, and each one delivers a density of 100W per square foot. As a company's computing needs increase, the datacenter can be expanded on the fly with the addition of new modules.

2. Companies cashed in on free cooling. Mother Nature provides not only power through wind and solar, she can also provide "free cooling" for datacenters, a trend that's garnered interest over the past year. Google, for example, has preached the merits of free cooling, which uses either water from a natural source or else outside air to cool machines in the datacenter, rather than relying on power-guzzling CRAC systems. ADC's new Sacramento-area datacenter, which earned LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum pre-certification, attributes its high efficiency in part of its use of outside air for cooling.

One of the most interesting experiments in free cooling that I saw in 2008 was conducted by Intel: The company exposed part of a working datacenter facility in New Mexico to outside temperatures as high as 90 degrees -- and made no effort to protect the machines from dust and other contaminants. Machines failure rates proved quite low -- and Intel concluded that in this particular region, at least, it could rely on air-side economizers 91 percent of the time and save $2.87 million on cooling at 10MW datacenter.

3. IT tackled rising energy costs. Companies have sharply felt the pain of looming energy costs this past year, not only in the datacenter and on the desktop, but in other areas of operation, such as travel and shipping, thanks to higher gas prices. This has given IT an opportunity to shine in a number of ways, helping cut costs while reducing the size of organizations' carbon footprints.

The U.S. Postal Service, for example, announced that it managed to cut more than $5 million in transportation costs (not just fuel) through the use of a new transportation-optimization system. The system helped the company find more efficient ways to deliver mail without impacting service levels.

Similarly, Welch's sliced transportation costs by applying business-intelligence technology. Accenture, meanwhile, reported saving millions of dollars in travel costs through the implementation of telepresence and videoconferencing.

Finally, Fidelity found a way to avoid fuel surcharges on mail while boosting efficiency through the use of e-signature technology. The bottom line: IT demonstrated in 2008 that it has the power to help organizations become greener and leaner.

4. Telecommuting gained momentum. 2008 witnessed a notable increase in telecommuting, at least according to a survey conducted by global HR association WorldatWork, thanks to the perfect storm of rising gas prices, leading-edge technology, and push for work-life flexibility. One vendor helping with the effort was Cisco, which unveiled the Cisco Virtual Office package, aimed at giving remote workers an in-the-office experience.

Perhaps most interesting, Sun shared the results of a study of its corporate telecommuting program, finding that it not only saved employees money on gas and car wear and tear; it also helped saved Sun nearly $68 million in real estate costs.

5. Inside and out, IT products grew greener. Capitalizing on organizations' (and consumers') yearning to be greener, vendors across the board injected an array of green features in their various product lines in 2008. Here's but a short sampling:

* Dell unveiled its PowerEdge M-series blade server, boasting a hyper-efficient power supply as well as superior cooling and power management.

* Intel introduced its Nehalem CPU, which sports an on-chip power management microcontroller capable of turning off CPU cores to save power.

* Apple revealed a greener MacBook line that complies with Energy Star 4.0 and the European Union's RoHS (Restriction on Hazardous Substances) directive, contains no brominated flame retardants, uses only PVC-free internal cables and components, and uses energy-efficient LED-backlit displays that are mercury-free and made with arsenic-free glass.

* Asustek presented a laptop PC with a casing made of bamboo.

* Web-conferencing company iLinc introduced a Green Meter to its product that detects the locations of people attending a Web meeting, via IP address, and measures the distance between them. It then calculates how much CO2 they're saving by not traveling to meet face to face.

* NComputing released a virtual PC solution that enables as many as 30 users to simultaneously run virtualized Windows or Linux desktop sessions from a single standard PC.

* Xerox unveiled a Sustainability Calculator that (among other things) measures the waste and greenhouse gas emissions associated with powering printers, copiers, fax machines, and multifunction devices.

* Ilog, developer of a supply-chain application called LogicNet Plus XE, released a Carbon Extension, which can estimate the carbon impact of changes to the supply-chain network by computing the total carbon emissions associated with the new distribution facilities, plants, and modes of transportation used between various points.

* Cassatt unfurled a new version of Active Response that allows admins to set up policies such that application resources -- physical or virtual servers, software, and network resources -- will automatically adjust to meet real-time demand or service levels. The idea, in a nutshell, is to have just enough servers running simultaneously to satisfy users' needs, thus saving money on keeping excess servers from needlessly drawing expensive energy and cooling.

* Lenovo added remote power management capabilities to its energy-efficient ThinkCentre line of desktop computers.

What do you think were some of the most important trends for green tech in 2008?

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