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Don't forget digital e-waste in your green IT endeavors

Johns Hopkins researchers suggest while most organizations associate electronic waste with hardware lifecycle management, the way you manage software and data will also have an impact.
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Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

Most of us define electronic-waste (aka e-waste) as all the stuff that literally goes into (and comes out of) a piece of computer or consumer electronics hardware. E-waste disposal is one of the hottest and most controversial topics around, especially as it applies to physical consequences. But researchers at Johns Hopkins have published a paper suggesting that many people overlook another major causes of e-waste: cluttered, ill-managed electronic files and applications that no longer justify their existence.

Their argument is yet another case for the idea that technology consolidation -- of storage devices, of servers, of data that has outlived its useful life -- is probably the greenest IT strategy around. Better use and reuse of existing drives and servers, even though the mindset has been to replace things like this every three years, is an idea that is increasingly coming into vogue.

But that requires better discipline when it comes to applications development, software code repurposing and electronic document management/archiving, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers. They write: "Our everyday data processing activities create massive amounts of data. Like physical waste and trash, unwanted and unused data also pollutes the digital environment ... We propose using the lessons from real life waste management in handling waste data."

The researchers have taken the same philosophies you might normally see applied to manage physical technologies and have applied them to software management. Here's what they have come up with:

  • Reduce: Penalize applications that are bloated or that don't demonstrate business value. Even though people tend to cling to legacy software, so they may need to be penalized to actually get them to do anything about this.
  • Reuse: By deduplicating files, businesses and individuals can make better use of existing storage media and hardware, which is traditionally very overprovisioned.
  • Recycle: What code in existing software applications can be reused across other applications?
  • Recover: What information IS valuable and should be recovered and analyzed for the sake of the organization? (I think they use to call this data mining, no?
  • Dispose: Don't be afraid to push the delete button for files that have outlived their usefulness

The diagram below depicts what the Johns Hopkins researchers are thinking.

For some of you, these concepts may be no-brainers. But just because they are simple, doesn't mean they won't have a profound impact on your overall lifecycle assessments. As planning for 2012 gets into high gear, the way you dispose of technology should be higher on your agenda. The way you manage your software will directly impact your organization's "real" e-waste impact.

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