Environmental best practices in ICT in Higher Education report

Posted on January 27, 2009


Computer data centre bookcover 1972Here’s more notes from Peter James and Lisa Hopkinson’s  study on Sustainable ICT in Further and Higher Education  (firstsecond post).     This chapter describes environmental best practices.  Short story:  return of the data centres (but with a green tinge). 

The chapter is structured around taking action.  Data centres are seen as an important area with rapidly expanding data storage requirements.  These, though , have a “hidden environmental footprint” with “rapidly growing energy consumption”.    They give three scenarios

1. addressing low hanging fruit – little capital investment to continue consolidation, power management, remove legacy applications 30% improvement, (interesting that they put the legacy apps in this one, often the hardest thing to do).

2. best practice – same plus aggressively adopt energy efficient servers and moderate storage consolidation – 70%, and

3. state of the art – aggressively consolidate servers and storage –  80% saving. 

James and Hopkinson stress the importance of strategic decisions (those that affect the enterprise architecture – business, applications, information, technology).   These include:

thick versus thin clients:  “can be beneficial in many circumstances”

centralised versus distributed computing:  dispersed “reduces overall need for devices”, but “apparent reductions in energy consumption may be misleading as some has simply moved elsewhere”, probably net benefits with economies of scale

information life-cycle management:  minimising consumption through more effect use of storage, classifying data by how rapidily it needs to be accessed, and minimising total storage… “de-duplication, with 20–90% savings, depending on the type of data (but) generally, savings have been at the lower end of the spectrum”. 

outsourcing and partnership arrangements for service provision:   “Discussion on this topic is confusing” (they wrote that, not me!).  Is the outcome of dispersed computing and includes server space,  services  such as email and office applications, consortium arrangements etc.   There are generic benefits of all remote computing activities – “More energy-efficient means of providing the same computing requirements” mostly through economies of scale, along with benefits of common data centres – mainly an ability to specialise.  

Much of the claim of greater efficiencies carries questions of reliability and energy penalties (data over large distances), so the authors recommend “the greatest benefits were likely to be achieved by collaborations between institutions that were located within close proximity to each other”. 

Desktop PCs are also considered:

PCs account for 40–50% of total ICT-related electricity consumption in universities and colleges. In addition, of course, the production and disposal of these devices also has considerable energy and environmental impacts. They should therefore be a high priority in sustainable ICT initiatives.

The amount of power a PC uses varies enormously:  a higher energy, high-usage PC with no power management could cost £61 per year in electricity compared to a lower energy, low-usage PC with power management costing £3 per year.    I’m pleased to see the authors suggesting a holistic approach here: 

A strategic approach to personal computing is required to ensure that the approaches adopted, and the equipment purchased, meet student and staff needs in the most cost-effective and sustainable way possible. The starting point is assembling a team. To be effective, this needs to bring together (at least) IT staff, users, and energy or environmental managers, and be chaired by a relatively senior manager…

Changes such as these are often unpopular and so it is important to build support by developing awareness of the environmental benefits they create.


If MFDs (especially laser ones) genuinely replace dedicated devices such as copiers, faxes or printers, and are heavily used, then they are environmentally superior. However, if this is not the case, they may not be.

They suggest a team approach here too:

As with desktop solutions, a strategic approach to print/imaging management – embodied in a crossfunctional team – is vital to ensure that the equipment purchased meets student and staff needs in the most cost-effective and sustainable way possible. Five key topics need to be considered:

Print and paper auditing to help identify priorities, and to justify investment in measures to cut paper usage

The potential for print substitution – research suggests that much printing is easily avoidable, and that good Intranets and document management systems can help to reduce it 

Consolidation of imaging devices into a smaller number of more heavily utilised ones

Effective print management, and

Overcoming barriers – changes in printing practices are often unpopular and so it is important to maximise benefits (eg greater convenience from the ability to print from multiple locations), and to develop understanding of the environmental benefits of change


A number of the options for more sustainable ICT can be taken by IT departments within relatively short  time frames, and without any significant strategic implications. However, alongside these ‘quick wins’ are a number of options that are longer term and more strategic, because they require collaboration between IT and other departments, and/or involve a complex mix of environmental and non-environmental considerations. Environmental and sustainability considerations will only be one element in the decision making about these options and their implementation (which means that environmental benefit is not inevitable, as they can be introduced in different ways), but it is important that they are recognised and given appropriate weight.

Key measures and priorities