Eco-server strategy has potential to save Irish Exchequer up to €30m

26 Mar 2009

A new State computer server strategy could reduce CO2 emissions by 18,000 tonnes.

As the emergency budget looms, and, with the Irish Government looking to cut spending, there is an opportunity for the State to save between €20m and €30m, as well as reduce carbon emissions by 18,000 tonnes, if it commits to an overhaul of its IT systems.

Right now, the average server in any business or State department operates at around 10pc capacity, and many organisations keep several servers, each for specific functions such as email, web hosting, accounts, sales and human resources.

A new revolution is sweeping the computing world under the term ‘virtualisation’, which allows firms to own fewer servers, spread the load and create ‘virtual’ machines to handle a sudden spike in demand. So, instead of seven machines running at 10pc capacity each, organisations can have two servers running at 50–60pc capacity.

The impact of this means that organisations require fewer servers, reducing maintenance and electricity costs significantly as well as the environmental impact.

Globally, computer emissions are estimated to account for 2pc of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the impact of the airline industry.

A further revolution in ‘cloud computing’, whereby IT infrastructure can be accessed remotely over the internet to internet data centres rather than in-house, could pave the way for further cost savings.

A parliamentary question tabled by Fine Gael’s spokesperson for Small Business and Labour Affairs, Damien English TD, last month to every minister revealed that there are an estimated 4,608 servers across Irish State departments, including 52 in the Department of the Taoiseach, 154 in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, 1,288 within the HSE, 376 in the Department of Agriculture and 510 in the Department of Justice.

A subsequent question about whether any of these departments intend to deploy virtualisation to reduce the number of servers, found only one department — the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources under Minister Eamon Ryan TD — had plans to move to virtualisation.

Data centre expert Stephen McCarron of Dublin-based Hosting365 has looked at the number of servers currently being run by the Irish Government, and he estimates the Government could save the Exchequer at least €23m per annum.

“The running costs of these servers would be €23m a year just in maintenance; this ignores the cost of buying the machines and housing them securely.

“If you are running 4,600 servers, the electricity bill alone to keep them switched on and cooled would be €7m per annum. So, the Government is paying €500,000 a month to run these servers.”

The environmental impact of this, McCarron reckons, could be enormous.

“This would be the equivalent of a small town’s worth of CO2 emissions. There would be 18,000 tonnes of carbon dumped every year by the Government’s own IT infrastructure. If the Government moved to cloud computing, the output of carbon could be reduced to 200 tonnes per annum, he says.

English says the environmental and budgetary aspects of the current swathes of Government servers need to be addressed.

“These things are like smelters, they use that much energy. The people I’ve been talking to estimate a minimum of €20m in savings, this could rise to €60m. That would be by rearranging servers and getting better use out of them.

“This wouldn’t cost any jobs, it would not entail any reduction in front-line services and, in fact, would free people up to provide citizens and businesses with better services.”

English says that Colm McCarthy, who heads up An Bord Snip Nua, in his previous role at the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General brought attention to the vast number of servers used within Government departments.

“This should be looked at in a strategic way. Minister Eamon Ryan TD was the only minister who indicated his department may move to a virtualised environment. A Government plan is needed because this is one area that would deliver an immediate return for the economy,” English says.

Fredrik Sjostedt, director of EMEA product marketing at VMware, says a move to virtualisation would require literally little more than a software upgrade and would safeguard existing IT investments.

“It is important to maintain and keep the investment you’ve already made. The difference is you use what you have more effectively. If these machines were operating at 10pc of capacity, then you don’t need to buy new servers for some time if the devices are modern,” Sjostedt explains.

Microsoft Ireland’s server group manger, Bill O’Brien, says the savings of €20m in running costs and 18,000 tonnes of emissions would be conservative.

“Without looking at the exact calculations, broadly speaking there are huge savings to be made.

“We’re only at the start of the virtualisation journey. Servers are a good place to start and, in fairness, many departments have started. There’s a lot more to do, but it’s great area to save time, energy and space,” O’Brien concludes.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Stephen McCarron, Hosting365, and Damien English TD, Fine Gael spokesperson for Small Business and Labour Affairs