HP announces Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab

The company's facility will investigate 'green' concepts including swapping out copper for fibre within PCs and making advertising hoardings from electronic paper
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

Newsagents printing newspapers for customers and laptop screens that require only natural light to make them readable are just two of a range of energy-saving ideas being investigated by HP.

The company is keen to highlight its green credentials in the face of growing interest in environmental issues among businesses and more stringent environmental legislation.

HP outlined the concepts being investigated as part of the unveiling of its Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab this week. The lab, jointly located in Bristol and HP's head office in Palo Alto, California, has been created to develop environmentally friendly products for the future.

Although HP will not make a decision until June on which concepts it will pursue, the company is currently considering a range of possibilities. Among them are:

  • The expansion of digital printing, particularly among publishers. Instead of media companies publishing their own newspapers, files would be transferred electronically to newsagents, who would print them for customers on an on-demand basis, theoretically reducing the quantity of wasted newspaper stock significantly
  • Advertising hoardings made from electronic paper. This would enable adverts to be downloaded, rather than pasted using paper and glue
  • Swapping out copper for fibre within PCs, using a process called "nanophotonic interconnect". Although unproven, the theory is that, with spiralling copper prices, fibre might provide cheaper, more power-efficient components
  • Laptop screens which provide visibility using only natural light, saving on power usage. Technology similar to this is already incorporated in the One Laptop per Child project's XO laptop, designed for viewing in bright sunshine

Many of these technologies may never see the light of day, but HP is keen to pin down the concepts which could become commercial reality.

Chris Preist, UK head of HP's Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, said: "These [concepts] are not yet at product level, but there are some interesting prototypes. What we are focusing on is how can we make computers and IT systems more efficient."

Other work which Preist's team is undertaking includes:

  • The development of gas and electricity meters with a web interface, so users can analyse their energy usage
  • Reducing distribution inefficiencies by enabling better communications between modes of transport
  • "Dematerialisation" — the replacement of physical materials with digital where possible
  • Resource collaboration — for example, having pools of cars which users could book and hire as needed, using the web
  • Collaborative working, including videoconferencing. HP has invested millions in its high-end Halo Collaboration Studio videoconferencing system. Halo utilises screens big enough to portray meeting participants in life-sized images, and sells for hundreds of thousands of pounds

"We'll be announcing in June which [concepts] we'll place our bets on," said Preist.

The groundwork for the Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab was set in place in March, when HP restructured its R&D division, HP Labs, to focus in greater detail on fewer projects. As part of that initiative, the company set up 23 labs across the globe, focusing on "information explosion", dynamic cloud services, content transformation and intelligent infrastructure, as well as sustainability.

HP has also identified an immediate problem around pursuing a green agenda: namely, the potential for a clash between IT departments and facilities teams. While IT departments aim to make workers more productive by utilising more powerful servers and PCs, that goal conflicts with the requirements of facilities departments, which usually pay the energy bills.

That situation will soon be addressed by the wider business need to save costs in the datacentre, claimed Jerome Riboulon, HP's sales manager for power and cooling. "IT and facilities have opposite goals," he said. "What will push them in the end [to speak to each other] is the financial question. We will see a big transition." Riboulon added that Barclays, a HP customer that owns among the largest datacentre facilities in the UK, had "forced" its IT and facilities team to speak to each other.

HP also warned that rising power requirements will force some businesses to consider relocating their datacentres. Many datacentres in the City of London are facing "really critical" shortages of power, Riboulon said, and some were being relocated as far away as Norway, which offers wind energy, and Iceland, which offers geothermal energy. BT has located one of its datacentres on the west coast of Scotland to take advantage of the cooler conditions, HP added.

Riboulon went on to criticise US companies who over-cool their datacentres. He suggested that, in many cases, the cost of cooling has outstripped the cost of powering equipment in the first place. It is reasonable to operate a datacentre at 21°C but many US datacentres are much colder than that, he said. Riboulon added that it is possible to operate some datacentre equipment in temperatures as high as 25°C, saving significant sums on cooling costs.

However, a survey released on Wednesday by HP rival Cisco suggests companies are taking sustainability increasingly seriously. The survey found that 44 percent of UK-based IT leaders believe sustainability is now a board-level issue. Thirty percent of IT leaders surveyed said they anticipate increases in their budget for technologies that support sustainable business practices. Top sustainable practices include virtualisation and datacentre consolidation, particularly in the public sector, Cisco found.

"Technology has a key role to play in supporting sustainable business practice," said David Meads, operational director for Cisco. However, he added: "Organisations recognise that we are at a relatively early stage in the journey."

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