System Administration and the Environment

Today is Blog Action Day, and the focus is on the environment. What does this mean to a system administrator who works with computers in the data center all day?

Lots. There are at least two areas where you can help daily: data center electricity use, and paper use.

Data Center Electrical Use

The data center is becoming responsible for an ever increasing amount of electricity use, and generators are already maxed out in many locations in the country. Electricity generation often relies on coal or fossil fuels or perhaps nuclear generation, all of which pose risks of one sort or another. Electricity generation spews pollution into the air, and degrades our air quality.

Reducing electricity usage in the data center will not only reduce the need for electricity, it can also reduce your corporate electric bill.

There are many ways to do this. One is to use virtual servers wherever possible and practical. Virtual servers can be added to a machine with no increase in electrical use, and with other improvements as well. Virtual servers can simplify maintenance, restoration, and more.

Another way is to get rid of old (or very old) systems and replace them with something more current. At one company I worked for, an IBM System 36 was replaced by an AS/400 Advanced 36 – and the electric cost savings were tremendous. Older systems take more power than the newer replacements, as new power-saving technology is introduced.

The technology industry has an initiative called The Green Grid to help foster reduction in data center electricity use as well. Intel Corporation has an initiative of their own, as well as being partners with Google in the Climate Savers Computing Initiative. Dell Computer Corporation has an extensive environmental program designed to help the company be environmentally conscious on all levels. The chip-maker AMD is also pushing its energy-efficiency program to help reduce data center energy use.

In fact, AMD sponsored a study by Jonathan Koomey, a professor at Stanford and a scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) which studied extensively power use by data centers. InformationWeek reported on this study. Koomey has been actively studying power usage for some time; a previous study was reported on by Science@Berkely Lab Magazine sometime in 2001 or 2002.

On Dec. 6, 2006, reported (from an article by Sarah Jane Tribble of the Mercury News) on a meeting between many of the technology companies (such as IBM, Cisco, SGI, Google, Sun Microsystems, HP) and the federal government focused on what they called “the upcoming energy crisis” driven by IT energy consumption.


Paper, while being a renewable resource, is taking its toll on the trees that exist on our planet (along with the need for lumber world-wide). The biggest problem is that trees are being consumed faster than they can be regenerated – trees take many years to grow, and only minutes to take down.

Another problem with standard white paper (as is used in the office) is that actual paper production is a very messy and chemically intensive process – the bleaching of the paper (making it white instead of the generic brown or tan) is the worst. With the most irresponsible companies, the chemical results may go back into the river; others will put the chemicals into barrels and store it somewhere.

Reducing paper usage by not printing, and using recycled paper will help preserve the forests of America and of the world.

….and of the Industry….

While the individual system administrator won’t be able to do much about this, the computer industry is a new source of pollution that hasn’t gone noticed very much – in particular, chip manufacturing. The chemical remains from chip manufacturing are positively horrendous and quite caustic – a well-known portion of the manufacturing process requires the use of an etchant which etches away portions of metal or other products to leave the traces in the chip or circuit board. However, chip manufacturers are taking note and making changes to become less polluting.

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