Friday, 6 November 2009

* How Green is your PC ?

I am naturally inclined to be sceptical, particularly where the subject may concern environmental issues but I sometimes believe a major contributor to global warming may actually be the volume of hot air those in responsible positions often spout about their organisations' environmental credentials. This especially applies to where IT is concerned.

Recently, I visited the Microsoft website and clicking on “Environmental Sustainability Dashboard” thought I was heading for a statement of MS environmental awareness, only to find I was looking at another product they wished to sell !. Quote “the Environmental Sustainability Dashboard for Microsoft Dynamics AX provides information that can help (businesses) identify opportunities for cost savings and mitigation of environmental impact.”

I wondered whether this also included the environmental impact of using their software.

And there is indeed a significant and long term impact that the use of Microsoft Windows Home and Server Editions has had on the environment which is conveniently glossed over by many. Green computing is the environmentally responsible use of computers and related resources. Such practices include the implementation of energy-efficient central processing units (CPUs), servers and peripherals as well as reduced resource consumption and proper disposal of electronic waste (e-waste).

Operating Systems – the main players

Let's examine this situation further.

  • Microsoft is the single purveyor of licenses for the Windows series of operating systems. As of Sept 30, 2008, Microsoft had 94,286 employees. World desktop share estimated 91.11% May 2008.

  • Apple Inc. are the sole developers and marketers of the Macintosh Operating System (Mac OSX) a UNIX based operating system. In Nov 2008, Apple Inc. employed approximately 32,000 people with about 16,000 of these employed in retail stores. It is estimated that approximately 1,000 employees are devoted to development of the Mac OSX alone. Desktop share estimated 4.73% May 2008.

  • (i) Red Hat is the largest contributor to the Open Source Linux operating system Kernel and as of February 29, 2008, Red Hat had more than 2,200 employees worldwide. Fedora is Red Hat's free open source Linux operating system.

(ii) Novell employed approximately 4,200 employees as of Jan 2009. They market SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop/Server and Novell Open Enterprise Server while freely issuing a Linux desktop operating system called openSUSE.

(iii) Mandriva develops a range of Linux enterprise solutions, integrated products and services for private and public-sector companies and by December 2008 had expanded to roughly 200 employees.

In addition to these corporate businesses there are in excess of 100 current distributions (flavours) of the Linux OS, nearly all developed and distributed by volunteers and individuals acting as part of their own communities.

Total desktop share for all combined distributions is estimated at <4%>

  • One further point of note: As of November 2007, Linux powered 85% of the world's most powerful supercomputers compared to Windows' 1.4%.

So much for the numbers, albeit estimated in some cases. Now let's consider the environmental differences in running these different operating systems on our PC's at home and at work.

Microsoft has established a reputation in the IT industry for developing “bloatware”, be it their operating system Windows, or Office applications, etc. It may only be extra lines of code when you get down to it, but more lines of code eventually means the need for a more powerful cpu and more memory resources, and that means more energy consumption and more carbon dioxide emissions. The scene was first set with MSDOS upon which subsequent Windows OS's were built. Too late to change now.

Windows Vista requires a minimum of a 1GHZ processor, 512MB of RAM, 32MB of graphics memory and a 20GB hard drive. Windows 7 upon its eventual release will almost certainly require the same plus a further 512MB of RAM and at least 128MB of graphics memory. The average desktop PC running Windows now requires three fans to keep it cool; one for the power supply, one for the processor and one for the graphics board ! No change here then when many will once again find that unless they want their computer to run slower than before, any upgrade to their Windows version will require an expensive upgrade to their hardware.

Of course this is exacerbated in industry and government when IT departments are told their current version of Windows will no longer be supported. My last employer had to replace over 300 PC's and purchase a similar number of new Windows licenses to cover these. But was this really necessary ?.

Most of the time, at work and at home, we put very little processing demand upon our computers. Our common tasks - writing letters and emails, accounting spreadsheets, surfing the Web, watching videos, playing CD's/DVD's—require very little processing power. Only graphic designers, avid gamers and research scientists, to name a few, may actually need expensive powerful processors and huge memory. In most cases their needs can simply be met by the addition of supplementary graphics cards. For many years now, the PC manufacturing industry has promoted progressively more powerful desktops driven by the necessity to meet the requirements of Microsoft Windows and supported by component and peripheral manufacturers riding the profit bandwagon.

The Green Solution

I am writing this article on a modest 3 year old Celeron desktop computer running a Linux operating system. The operating system and all the software were entirely free to download and install. The computer boots up at least twice as fast as it did with Windows XP and most of the applications run faster. It never crashes, I never get viruses or malware, I don't need to run a virus-checker (although I do run a firewall) and my cpu is rarely pressed.

Linux is the people’s operating system and the Green operating system and nearly all development has taken place in the absence of huge Microsoft-sized marketing budgets. Open source developers consider it a challenge to compile software that runs as efficiently as possible and consequently open source runs cooler and quicker and uses fewer resources.

Companies and individuals get their open source operating system via free download, which means that packaging waste is eliminated. The only material consumed is the CD/DVD used to copy the files to.

Open source software documentation is almost always on-line or distributed inside the program and almost never printed into an actual book. Many distributions have their own detailed Wikipedia entries, regularly updated with comprehensive how-to's. Few trees die and little petroleum by-products are used in getting the desktop Linux OS up and running.

Open source software is developed communally by individuals working in harmony, not by corporate entities, which means the developers are writing software wherever they're located. In their lunch hours, in evenings, weekends, holidays and, for some whose employment may be in the IT field, at work. No special offices are required, no corporate headquarters to maintain, no shareholders to satisfy, no capital and revenue budgets to expense.

Think of the carbon footprint of 94,286 Microsoft employees.

A report from the U.K. Office of Government Commerce in March 2007 about Open Source Software Trials in Government, found that servers running Linux could combat the rising problem of e-waste because they lasted up to twice as long as machines running Windows.

The fact is that if National and local government organisations, education authorities, police, etc., moved to using open source Linux operating systems and software, much of their IT infrastructure would not require changing for some considerable period. When servers needed replacing you could use recycled or resurrected equipment instead of spending large sums on a new proprietary equipment.

In tests run by in September 2008, running multiple power consumption tests using Windows Server 2008 Enterprise Edition, Red Hat's Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 5.1 and SUSE Enterprise Linux 10 SP1 on four, popular 1U server machines, testing pointed to Linux as the winner with margins that topped out at over 12% lower. This 12% would go a long way towards the UK governments carbon emission targets for 2020.

The emergence in 2008 of the netbook using the latest Intel Atom/VIA Nano/ARM Sparrow processors, smaller screens and flash storage media has given new impetus to the need for more efficient operating systems such as Linux. Windows XP and Vista simply have the greatest of difficulty in running on these types of machines, although manufacturers and Microsoft are as usual bending over backwards in trying. Netbook manufacturer Acer points out that Linux has a quicker boot time and can extend the battery life of tiny Netbooks like the Aspire One. The most efficient air cooled PC's (excluding screens) running Linux may draw as little as 25 Watts power compared to 400 Watts for the average desktop of 2009.

Could this be the year that Linux breaks into mainstream computing ?. The combined attraction of the latest low cost, low power netbooks, corporate spending constraints in the world recession and the exponential rise in potential virus exposure to Windows users, could well sound the early death knell for Microsoft and a real beginning for “Green Computing” . However, those thinking that environmental concerns will primarily drive the take-up of Linux need to think again. Analysts at the IDC Research firm in Taipei summed it up by stating, “the engineers designing computers understand that if they want to cut costs, the only way to do so is to get rid of Microsoft”.

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