Microsoft has this week handed out US$500,000 to four universities doing research into efficient computing, while rival Sun has stepped up its green IT marketing efforts.
The research grants — announced on Monday — went to the Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tennessee. Projects included virtualisation, power consumption analysis, low power microarchitectures, and a "dynamic runtime environment" ensures power consumption corresponds to the computational load.
Microsoft recently launched an environment Web site and last year, it named Robert Bernard as its chief environmental strategist.
Sun, meanwhile, has been using the green message to encourage more companies to adopt thin clients. Having intelligence and processing power located on the server, rather than locally, has obvious benefits for a company that makes the bulk of its revenues from selling high-end computing.
The spectre of environmental legislation is also a factor in Sun's positioning. Most big name technology companies are keen to be seen as green, not only to cash in on a growing marketing for energy-efficient products, but also to show lamakers that they are capable of cleaning up their act without being forced to.
Targets such as those set by the European Commission to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020 are causing the green IT issue to rise up corporate agendas. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, IT currently accounts for 10 percent of the UK's total power consumption (compared to between two and four percent globally), and this figure is likely to double over the next decade as the market grows.
Energy efficiency and utility computing are important to Sun in terms of sales due to the new European targets, but also because of the importance placed on environmental issues by customers, says Richard Barrington, UK head of sustainability and public policy.
Barrington claims Sun's customers have different priorities in terms of the "green" agenda, with no clear focus emerging as yet. While some companies are coming at the issue from a corporate social responsibility standpoint, others want to cut utility bills or are worrying about lack of datacentre space. "So there's not a standard set of questions and different people have different interests based on their corporate agenda," Barrington says.
"So if we're looking at doubling power consumption in the next 10 years in the UK, it means Sun has to deliver 40 percent more energy-efficiency savings. But if we provide the best environmental technology, it will be delivered by the truckload, and being able to drive energy efficiency is a good start," Barrington says.
And this is where the concept of utility computing fits in, with its reliance on larger servers and, Sun hopes, thin-client devices. The vendor believes the long-awaited dawn of utility computing is on the horizon and that the industry, in Barrington's words, is now "on the cusp". Key to this shift, he believes, is the concept of de-materialisation or the digitising of formerly physical assets.
"My son at 14 doesn't interact with a machine. It's simply a gateway to the Internet so he can download music or use eBay, but he doesn't have a particular device in mind," says Barrington. "He hasn't got brand loyalty and he doesn't care if it runs Intel or Microsoft. So the idea is that if you use a machine as an access device, you can de-materialise it so it doesn't have to be a clunky box."
Sun claims its Sun Ray thin-client device delivers a 75 percent energy saving over the average PC, not least because of better resource utilisation. As evidence for his claims, Barrington cites the UK's Rural Payments Agency, which deployed 4,200 of the machines last year and expects to make electricity savings of Â£174,000 per annum as well as reduce its carbon footprint by 260 tons each year.
Subodh Bapat, vice president and distinguished engineer at Sun's Eco Responsibility Office (ERO) — which was set up in the US in late 2006 — says this is possible because the vendor has now made energy efficiency "a fundamental design criteria" across all strata of its product line for which it owns the intellectual property.
While ERO's function is to come up with corporate eco-friendly strategies and to set company-wide targets in terms of reducing water and power usage as well as consolidating buildings, Bapat has a more specific role. He is tasked with developing and co-ordinating energy-efficiency policies relating to the supplier's entire product portfolio and, as part of this, to set and enforce targets at both an inter- and cross-departmental level. The goal here is to ensure that different parts of the organisation communicate and work together towards the same end.
"It's a top-to-bottom stack-level approach so we can tweak knobs and dials and know how much power a network or storage component is consuming, as well as each element within that such as memory and disks," Bapat says.
To further demonstrate its green credentials, Bapat claims Sun is working on improving the environmental integrity of its supply chain and claims 95 percent of components can now be recycled, re-used or re-manufactured. Steps are also being taken to remove hazardous substances, with PVC components now being replaced with steel or aluminium ones, which, in turn, are more effective in terms of system cooling.