What is Green IT? Practices in Software/Hardware Design, Challenges

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What is Green IT?

Green IT refers to the policies and practices that firms follow to manage IT to comply with green norms. Typically, for a firm that mainly uses IT for its business, for making products, or for providing services, green IT practices would involve using IT in such a manner as to reduce carbon emissions or to use IT to monitor and manage carbon or other polluting emissions.

So, for firms there are two aspects of green IT practices:

  • Use IT efficiently to comply with green norms.

  • Use IT to ensure other firm activities conform to green norms.

Firms that are involved with making information technology products or those that provide information technology services, have to consider additional aspects of green IT. The design of IT products can follow green practices and this includes the creation of both hardware and software.

The IT artifacts produced in this manner are thus compliant with green norms and the firms can assure their customers that environmentally sound processes have been used. Such an approach contributes to the bottom line of the firm and also to its reputation as a responsible firm.

Green Practices in Hardware Design And Manufacture

Information technology hardware goes through the same cycle of design, manufacture, and disposal as many other products. The steps include design, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, usage, and disposal or reuse.

Here IT hardware refers to products such as laptops, tablets, keyboards, mice, monitors, cables, processor boards, network routers, interface cards, etc. All these products are used with others to create the entire IT infrastructure. Various manufacturers produce all these products under different brands or as unbranded component goods.

At the design stage, the artifact is envisaged with all the later stages – of manufacturing, packaging, transportation, use and reuse – in mind. Typically prototypes are produced that indicate what will be the environmental impact of all the later stages.

The materials required, the energy required to transport them, whether the components are considered to be damaging to the environment during disposal (such as lead, cadmium, mercury, polyvinyl chlorides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and arsenic), and the energy required to assemble or make them constitute the environmental impact that can be assessed from the prototype. Designers can build components that reduce or minimize such impacts, thus ensuring that the design is green.

IT product components are manufactured across the globe. Individual parts may be designed in one country, made and packaged in another, then branded and sold from a third. The entire supply chain contributes to the environmental impact of the product. To estimate the carbon footprint of an IT product it is important to add up the footprint of the component products, and then the carbon emissions from assembling the final product.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated in 2004 that to make a desktop computer 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals, including hazardous chemicals, and 1.5 tonnes of water are consumed. Burning of fossil fuels to make one desktop computer amounts to about 600 kg, at a very rough estimate, of carbon emissions.

Manufacturing IT components also entails packaging them for shipping, then removing the packaging for assembly into other parts. This too adds to the carbon footprint.

Packaging material is often designed for reuse and also components are sized to reduce the amount of packaging required. Some practices, such as not providing any printed manuals, but enabling them to be downloaded from a website, also reduce weight and energy use.

Green Practices in Software Design

For any given hardware, such as a hard disk or central processing unit (CPU), the operating system has a significant role in determining how efficiently the hardware is used. Software design has to include aspects of power and energy management for green IT practices.

Designers often consider software systems to be in two states – active and idle. In the active state, the software performs an activity, such as computing a spreadsheet, downloading a file, or playing a music file. In this state, the software relies on hardware units such as the CPU, the hard disk, or the compact disk player to run. In the idle state, software systems are ready for use but are not being used.

A browser that is currently not rendering a new page or downloading data is idle and may be ready for becoming active. The key issue for the design of the software is to ensure that the energy used by the hardware is most in the active state and least in the idle state.

Computer scientists have developed many ways in which software can be designed to do its tasks more efficiently. It is known, for instance, that for many kinds of search tasks, where the software has to search through a bunch of numbers or text, some algorithms are more efficient than others. Such algorithms rely on certain techniques that take the least number of steps to come up with the answer. Such algorithms turn out to be energy efficient also, as they impose a lesser burden on the processors in the active state.

Another method for achieving computation efficiency is by using multiple processors. Modern computers are built with dual-core, quad-core, or octa-core processors, which means they have 2, 4, or 8 CPUs built into one CPU core unit. Such processors can take an active task and process it in parallel over all the CPU units. In such cases, the software has to provide multi-threading capabilities, where each thread is a processing activity that can run independently of the others, and in parallel on a different CPU.

Hard Drive StatePower Consumption (Watts)% of Total Consumption
Idle0.575 W7%
Standby0.173 W2%
Read2.78 W35%
Write2.19 W27%
Copy2.29 W29%
Table: Power Consumption by a Hard Disk Drive In Different States

Multi-threading reduces the total energy requirement of the task, as the activity is shared by more than one CPU. Had the task run on one CPU alone, it would have taken much longer to complete. Besides, the energy used by one processor to run the entire task would be invariably more than the energy taken by multiple processors working on a part of the task.

Data Efficiency

Reading and writing data from and to secondary storage consumes a lot of energy. The software can be designed to minimize this energy consumption. Hard disks are widely used to store and retrieve data. These disks consist of a metal platter that rotates on a spindle and a read-write head that reads data written in concentric circles on the disk.

The disk consumes power while rotating – the least power is consumed when it is in the idle state, and the most power is consumed when it spins up from the idle state for the read-write head to find the position on the disk from which to start reading. Software drivers that control the disk are designed to ensure that the disk goes into a high spin as few times as possible, and remains idle when not needed.

When large files, such as video or audio files, are being read from the disk, some software is designed to read as much data as possible, and buffer it, so that the disk does not have to start and stop frequently. The buffer is a temporary storage area in the RAM or Cache that stores the data read from the secondary disk storage.

For example, if an application has to read 100 units of data from the hard disk and needs only 10 units at a time, it will have to start and stop the hard disk 10 times. However, if it can read 20 units at a time, where 10 are used by the application and 10 are buffered, the disk will have to be read-only 10 times. Thus buffering reduces the energy required to read data for the application.

A similar logic applies to reading data from DVDs and CDs. These disks also have to spin to enable reading data from them, hence they consume a lot of energy. With data buffering, almost 70% of energy savings occur while using a DVD drive.

Context-aware Design

Many hardware systems are designed to be context-aware and adjust their power use accordingly. For instance, a laptop will be aware when it has been disconnected from the power source and reduce screen brightness or hard disk usage accordingly.

Many devices now have screens that reduce brightness, as higher screen brightness consumes higher energy when the ambient light is high. Context-aware devices use embedded software and operating system drivers to enable sensing and responding to the local surroundings.

Green Practices in IT Use

The use of IT products requires energy and consumables. Green practices require a careful understanding of how energy is consumed and how its use can be minimized. Further, green practices also require managing the use of consumables such as paper, batteries, and toner. At an individual level, users can reduce energy by adopting some green practices that are outlined in Table.

At the end of the useful life of hardware devices, some of which are often disposed of after 3–5 years of use, their disposal adds to e-waste and pollution. One solution many firms have found is to increase the usable life of computers and components, either by re-using them in other configurations or by continuing to use them after installing compatible software that can run the applications needed.

Many firms use open-source software on old computers to continue using them. Open-source software is re-configured so that it can run on the old machines to effectively run the applications.

1. Charging of batteries on laptops, tablets, and notebook computers wastes energy as electricity is converted from AC to DC and the voltage is stepped down. This waste can be minimized by unplugging devices once the charging is done.
2. Battery life can be extended by frequent charges and also by ensuring that laptops and tablets power down or go into sleep mode when not in use.
3. Monitors consume about 20–30% of the power in a laptop or desktop system. Reducing brightness and turning it off when not in use reduce power consumption by the monitor or display unit.
4. Most modern operating systems run background processes while the system is in use. Such processes consume energy by running the CPU or storage devices. Though such energy consumption is low, the unneeded background processes can be shut down.
5. When processors run at high speeds, they consume more energy. Modern processors can be “under-clocked” or speeded down when their high performance is not needed. Also, when needed, the processors can be “over-clocked” or speeded up (without having to acquire additional, faster, processors).
6. A lot of energy is consumed by hard disks during read-write operations where the disk has to spin. When the disk has not been de-fragmented, the read-write operations take longer and the disk has to spin more. De-fragmenting or joining together pieces of files on the disk helps to reduce energy consumption.
Table: Steps to Reduce Power Consumption in Laptop and Desktop Computers

Replacing and disposing of a device requires care. Governments around the world have evolved careful norms to be followed while disposing of computers. In India, there are government-approved organizations that collect and correctly dispose of e-waste.

The process involves monitoring how the components are dismantled, where they are re-processed, and how the resulting wastes generated are treated. However, much of the e-waste is disposed of inappropriately leading to pollution.

IT for Green Practices

One key role of IT is that of monitoring, measuring, and managing environmentally sustainable, or green, activities within the organization. In the earlier sections, we have seen how IT can be managed to reduce energy consumption, reduce GHG emissions, and also to reduce environmental pollution. In this section, the focus is on how IT can be used to manage and implement green practices in all functions and activities of the organization.

Organizations are interested in the use of IT for managing greening for several reasons:

  • Green practices tend to increase the cost of operations and monitoring would help to control these costs as well as reduce them.

  • Laws and regulations around the world now insist that organizations report on their activities that impact the environment – such as energy, water, and material consumption, the extent of recycling of materials, and GHG emissions. This mandates all organizations to both monitor and report on these parameters.

  • The reputation and image of commercial firms and organizations are also affected by their efforts at sustaining green practices, and it is in their interest to monitor and show their efforts.

Monitoring Value Chain Activities

The value chain is a compact representation of activities in firms and organizations. Monitoring and managing greening activities can be understood from the value chain perspective. Each activity of the value chain may include green practices, in addition to the regular business and service tasks that are already included.

Inbound Logistics

Key tasks in this activity include procuring material from vendors, and storing and organizing the material. Green practices in this function will involve – the selection of vendors who are using recycled or environmentally friendly material; procurement from suppliers where the least energy is spent and shipping distances are minimal; monitoring of energy consumption during storage, transportation, and movement within buildings. IT systems assist by providing reports on energy consumed, material wasted or spilled, material balances, reuse of waste, material recycling, vendor activities, and material flows.


Sustainable practices in this activity include monitoring energy, water, and other resource consumption, re-cycling of components and parts, and monitoring waste and spillage. Some organizations practice “closed-loop manufacturing” where recycled products made by the same firm (discarded or exchanged by customers) are disassembled and reusable parts are included in the manufacturing process. All these activities can be monitored by IT systems and reported accordingly.

Outbound Logistics

Green practices in this function focus on optimizing transportation for the least energy and fuel usage, reducing waste and spillage during transportation, using green material for packaging, and re-cycling packaging material. IT systems provide key information and “dashboards” for these activities to be sensed, logged, and monitored.

Sales and Marketing

Green activities involve informing customers and channel partners about the green practices being followed, the practice of recycling, and how they can participate in these activities. IT systems can assist with informing and educating partners.


Green activities include informing customers of how product life can be extended, assisting them with greening activities, and recovering old and used parts for recycling.

For all the above activities the information systems are used to collect data, store data in appropriate formats, run analysis on data and provide real-time and time-bound reports to management. The systems are usually integrated with the enterprise software or application software being used by the organization.

Challenges For Managers in Implementing Green IT

Implementing green IT and building facilities for smart cities presents many challenges for managers. Four issues are highlighted below.


The cost of implementing software and hardware for green IT is a significant issue for most organizations. These efforts entail designing and building or buying new IT infrastructure that leads to increased costs.

The challenge for managers is to ensure that the subsequent benefits exceed the costs, where the impact of greening will have to be measured carefully and accounted for as a benefit. Managers also have to ensure that the long-term plans for IT include within them green practices to help reduce costs.


One of the most important issues that arise with sensing and collecting massive amounts of data for green IT efforts and also with smart city projects is the privacy of individuals whose data is being collected.

This issue has been flagged in cities and countries around the world, where citizens feel that their everyday activities – such as driving to work, going to an office, using water, and using electrical devices – are being sensed, and the data from these are being stored and later analyzed.

The challenge for managers who are implementing IT within green practices in organizations or implementing smart city IT solutions is to ensure that privacy concerns are addressed both for the ethical concerns of citizens and for legal compliance.


Related to privacy is the issue of surveillance. Sensor data collected within organizations leads to the panopticon effect (covered in the previous chapter), where employees and others affiliated with the organization are not fully aware of what is being monitored and when.

Managers who implement green practices, say in smart buildings, will have to create policies that ensure data on employees’ movements, energy consumption, water consumption, etc. are used only in the manner specified (that is, for green compliance).

Data Infrastructure

Data from sensors is collected in very large quantities for green IT and smart city projects. The challenges that managers face in dealing with such large quantities of data are those of storage, management, disposal, and compliance. Some of the questions they will need to answer are:

How much data needs to be stored for the short term and perpetuity? How should the data be made accessible to those within or outside the organization (such as data analysts in a city or with a commercial third-party organization)? What licenses should be used to make the data accessible? For how long should the data be stored? How should modified data be licensed and shared? Answers to these questions will enable them to formulate broad policies to manage the data infrastructure.

Management Information Systems

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