Last September, cabinet office minister Gillian Merron said government IT should be greener. She announced an initiative to make this happen. How is this being carried out?

The government's CIO, John Suffolk of the cabinet office, announced at the time of the Merron speech that the government CIO organisation, the UK CIO Council, would work with the Information Age Partnership (IAP), aka a group of the great and good in the UK IT industry, to devise a way for government IT to become greener.

Its chair, Cisco Systems UK MD Duncan Mitchell, agreed with this, saying: “The Information Age Partnership welcomes this challenge and looks forward to working alongside the government to achieve its aims. The IT industry is focused on making existing systems more sustainable and is ideally placed to advise how service transformation can be used to reduce the environmental impact of activities in the public and private sector alike."

Greening government IT is a highly complex matter. There are dozens of government departments with dozens of individual IT infrastructures developed individually in many different ways. There is no one single government IT purchase and implementation body. The government's chief information officer (CIO) cannot simply issue a Go Green directive and be confident that it will happen. Government IT doesn't work like that.

Nevertheless, government IT represents a significant chunk of the UK's IT-related carbon emissions and it needs to take a lead or, at least, keep up. In consequence, like most cross-department activities the effort is being headed by the Cabinet Office.

Inside this the initiative involved a partnership at the top level between a government IT head group and an outside body.

Regarding the progress so far, a cabinet office spokesman said: "Following Gillian Merron's announcement in Portugal, the CIO Council is looking at how the government can reduce the carbon footprint of its IT systems and is expected to report in the next few months. As well as working with colleagues from across government the council has been consulting with a range of external bodies, discussing their thinking and research."

The spokesperson declined to comment in any more detail, about, for example, potential EPEAT standard adoption in government purchasing, or any other aspect of the work. Nor does the response actually mention the IAP.

Process and People involved

Suffolk as the chief information officer of the government heads the CIO Council whose members include CIOs of various government departments and bodies. Suffolk reports to Alexis Cleveland, head of transformational government. She in turn reports to the UK's most senior civil servant and cabinet secretary Gus O'Donnell.

Below Suffolk is William Perrin of the Delivery and Transformation Group, and reporting to him is Emily Holmes, environmental co-ordinator and assistant director for Policy and strategy.

It was anticipated that the process would be that the IAP would set up a working group to investigate. It will scope out the issue and invite comment from various informed parties. A report will be produced and delivered to Suffolk.

It would then be considered by the UK CIO Council after which, it was expected, John Suffolk would deliver his view on it up the hierarchy to Alexis Cleveland and, presumably Gus O'Donnell.

If it were to be approved a greener government IT project will be launched with the UK CIO Council members having to take the report's conclusions and apply it to their own departmental IT operations.

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IAP

The IAP is chaired by Duncan Mitchell and works under the auspices of DBERR, the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The IAP executive committee has about 20 members. Mitchell's day job is to run Cisco UK so he won't actually be sitting down to work out how to green government IT.

The executive committee typically sets up workstreams to achieve work and the IAP website currently lists no green government IT workstream. Each workstream is led by an IAP member, so we don't know which IAP member is heading this green govternment IT activity.

A workstream will engage with other IAP members and outside bodies to obtain input to its deliberations and will then produce a report.

The secretariat to the Information Age Partnership is provided by the Electronics and IT Services Unit of DBERR. We might assume then that DBERR is involved in the greening of government IT through this provision.

Situation after five months

When asked what the situation was the assumptions about about the IAP's role had to be downgraded. The Department for Business and the IAP stated: "The CIO Council is looking at how the government can reduce the carbon footprint of its IT systems and is expected to report in the next few months."

"As well as working with colleagues from across government the council has been consulting with a range of external bodies, discussing their thinking and research. The Information Age Partnership, as part of its wider ICT and Environment work group, has been consulted by Cabinet Office and the CIO Council on this important issue. Members are committed to assisting the Cabinet Office wherever possible, and have fed into the work to date."

"The IAP ICT and Environment Work Group is looking at the wider issue of ICT, with a focus on the wider application of ICT to reduce carbon as well as ICT's own carbon footprint, and will be delivering its final report in May 2008."

The IAP website lists no ICT and Environment Work Group so there is no information available about it as there is for IAP workstream activity.

The CIO Council is expected to report in the next few months which could mean between April and September. What might its report envisage?

How to green government IT?

Government in general buys two kinds of IT kits: PCs and printers to sit on people's desks and kits to go in datacentres to run government applications. The kits may actually be bought by organisations to which government IT has been outsourced. Some HMRC mainframes are, for example, operated by EDS.

The government operates the existing IT kit and will buy a new IT kit. The greening government IT problem then neatly splits into four boxes:

1. How to reduce the energy consumption of existing desktop IT kit?
2. How to reduce the energy consumption of existing government datacentres?
3. How to buy more energy-efficient desktop IT kit in the future?
4. How to buy, lease or operate greener data centres in the future?

How to reduce the energy consumption of existing desktop and notebook computers?

This is conceptually very simple and involves switching the kit off. PCs can be switched off automatically using scripts or software from 1E and Verdiem. Desktop printers, renowned for energy-gobbling, can be replaced by shared printers.

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How to reduce the energy consumption of existing government datacentres?

An overall consensus is emerging around datacentre power need reduction. It is focusing on server virtualisation, operating temperature and under-floor clutter.

Datacentre servers should be virtualised. As many as nine individual Windows servers can be disposed of through having a tenth server run VMware. The savings on Linux and other Unix servers can also be dramatic.

Reducing server numbers in this way reduces power consumption and cooling power consumption needs.

Datacentre lights can be turned off. The datacentre operating temperature can be raised to reduce cooling energy needs. Cable clutter under raised floors can be reduced so as to improve airflow.

Re-organising the datacentre's layout so as, for example, to introduce hot aisle/cold aisle designs will involve server switch-off which obviously reduces datacentre service availability.

There is an EU-driven datacentre code of conduct (CoC) initiative which aims to produce voluntary guidelines specifying how datacentre carbon emissions could be reduced. DEFRA is involved in this and, hopefully, DEFRA and the IAP are talking, such that the datacentre CoC will be a factor in the IAP's report.

How to buy more energy-efficient desktop IT kits in the future?

The government can decide to buy more energy-efficient kits. A standard will need to be used and there isn't an appropriate UK one. The US has its EnergyStar standard and there is the overall environmental PC, printer and screen EPEAT standard. This could be used with appropriate waivers or replacements for the EPEAT standard's recyclability and hazardous substance provisions.

There is an existing set of desktop IT kit manufacturers with EPEAT-graded products such as Dell, HP, Lenovo and many more. EPEAT looks like a potentially viable choice for a desktop IT kit energy-efficiency standard.

The government can also move to a thin client IT infrastructure and get rid of desktop PCs altogether.

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How to buy, lease or operate greener datacentres in the future?

Here there is no simple consensus. Building datacentres is a complex affair. The Climate Savers Computing Initiative and The Green Grid are involved in this general effort and, again it is to be hoped, the IAP working party is obtaining input from these bodies.

The British Computer Society is also active in the datacentre greening front and represents another informed party that the IAP could consult.

What is likely to result here is a commitment by government to abide by developing green datacentre best practice as represented by some body's assessment scheme.