December 2009

Q. What lessons can "green" computing learn from open source?

A. Steven Chu, the current US Energy Secretary indicated in an interview that open source software will help cut down on global warming. He says that global co-operation on technology to improve efficiency is vital. Open source facilitates the co-operation that can be brought into a program by various parties due to the fact that intellectual property haggling is no longer an issue.

In spite of all the recent talk about green computing, how green is information technology (IT) and computing? Experts talk about optimizing HVAC and other energy saving mechanisms, but the crux of the problem lies in the computers themselves. We need to evaluate what the software development process is costing us.

Here are some reasons why adopting some of the practices found in the open source development model can result in greener software:

Development Model: the open source development model relies heavily on shared resources and non-exclusive use of hardware and software. Project plans, bug trackers, source code, and documentation reside in the cloud. Contributors, in most cases, work out of their homes and do not contribute carbon emissions above what they would have used living in their homes. The carbon emissions that are saved when employees are not required to commute to an office location can also be substantial.

Less Power Consumption: consider the energy costs of a software company: the power consumed by developer's machines and servers, lighting, air conditioning, and maintaining other common facilities. A conservative estimate of these expenses would be at least 15% of the total operating expenses of the company.

Lower Operating Overheads: operating overheads contribute significantly to the overall cost of a company. These include sales and marketing, security services, ID cards, human resources, payroll, and salaries.

Virtualization: provides a means to optimally use system resources and provides an excellent mechanism to scale as needed. While this is not restricted to open source, the most commonly used technologies tend to be open source.

Reuse Obsolete Systems: open source applications perform quite well on older, obsolete, and commodity hardware, eliminating the need for power hungry server systems requiring a lot more infrastructure. A network of commodity systems can be more powerful and less expensive than the typical server. It will also consume less power.

Thin Clients: consume much less power than a desktop. They can replace desktops in organizations where the majority of the work is desktop based such as Internet browsing, using email and using enterprise applications. Often, a company that decides to try thin clients is trying to save money and will opt for a Linux based system.

Distributed Online: open source software is usually distributed online. This means less power is used to duplicate discs, less paper is used to create marketing material, and less money is spent overall in the distribution of the software. Online documentation is the norm for most open source software, resulting in fewer trees being manufactured into paper.

Fewer Lawyers: open source licenses tend to be litigated less often. Less money tends to be spent on legal services, including the negotiation of contracts.

Open source reduces dependence on power, money and paper. Further research can quantify how carbon emissions are reduced in an organization that has adopted open source.

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