Yahoo! has announced its going to purchase 250,000 tonnes of carbon offsets, equivalent to its green house gas (GHG) emissions in 2006. Since the bulk of those will probably have come from its datacentre operations does this make carbon offsetting a valid strategy for datacentre operators in general.

After all, greening your datacentre is an investment and it could be that the RoI of carbon offsetting is much higher than the ROI of lowering power consumption in your datacentre; the upfront cost is possibly lower to begin with; the cost of each offset GHG tonne being lower than the cost of each directly reduced GHG tonne.

This could all be a thought of as a palpably silly suggestion as it depends on your view of carbon offsets - are they a viable way of reducing GHG emissions or not? - and your view of global warming.

However, by posing the question to various suppliers, interesting views are revealed.

Offsetting is greenwash

The extreme end of the spectrum of views about offsetting is that it is a form of cheating.

Here is Kelly Smith, the MD of Smartbunker: "The first category on the journey towards sustainable electrical generation is 'carbon offsetting'. That is, instead of reducing or eliminating the use of electricity generated from fossil fuels, the datacentre pays a third-party company to implement schemes, often in far-flung countries, designed to extract an equal amount of carbon from the environment. The classic example is tree planting, as trees absorb carbon."

"There have been very vocal doubts raised over carbon offsetting schemes. Once out of the ground and emitted into the atmosphere through the power station¹s chimney, fossil carbon joins the active carbon pool (the carbon in circulation before the fossil derived additions) and will not go back into the fossil carbon pool for many thousands of years."

"There is, even if tree-planting schemes are effective, more carbon in circulation than there would otherwise have been. As soon as the planted trees are cut down and burnt or simply die and rot, the captured fossil carbon is re-released. This carbon will, relevant to ourselves and our descendents, never be neutralised and it cannot in any meaningful way be offset."

Smith's conclusion is this: "Carbon offsetting schemes assuage guilt whilst allowing business-as-usual but are no answer and can be quite safely viewed as greenwash."

Jordan Gross, CEO of Ultraspeed, also thinks carbon offsets have no place: "Carbon offsets are not a solution to solving the problem currently at hand - the emission of an excessive amount of carbon into our atmosphere."

"Offsets are merely a distracting sidestep - and one that CIO's should not be distracted by. Time would be better spent on achieving real energy use reduction (and therefore carbon emission reduction)."

"It is important when looking to reduce carbon emissions that the whole picture is looked at - for example, there may be little point replacing perfectly good 1U servers with blades if the emissions generated during the production of the blades, and the destruction of the 1U servers will actually contribute more to the carbon footprint compared to the cost of keeping and running the original 1U servers - the big picture is important!

He asserts too that: "Suppliers fall under the same caption as the above - they need to reduce their energy emissions at source as well."

That's clear enough. A less extreme position asserts offsetting has no place in datacentres although it may be valid elsewhere.

Offsetting has no place

Several supliers think that enough GHG reduction can be accomplished directly in datacentres without having to dip your fingers into offsets.

Data warehouse vendor Netezza is one of these. A spokesperson said: "Actually the biggest challenge in the datacentre is space. Most are literally bursting at the seams, and building new/additional ones is prohibitively expensive.

"Orange UK installed Netezza in its datacentre four years ago for exactly this reason. It reduced cabinet spaces from 26 to nine, and reduced power and cooling requirements by two thirds."

Yes, that is impressive but you have to have data warehouse systems to begin with.

Hitachi Data Systems has a similar position. Alec Bruce, its Eco-Solutions Champion, was asked 'Should an IT Director needing to green a datacentre buy carbon offsets as a way of achieving lower emissions?'

He said: "Attempting to ‘green’ a datacentre by purchasing offsets made available by their suppliers is not an effective way to proceed because this results in no energy improvements in the products themselves, which is the fundamental issue."

"Often the suppliers offering carbon offsetting to their customers are those with energy-inefficient products in the first place so the IT Director really needs to look at the total environmental metrics of the products available."

"Customers also need to be wary of offsetting schemes as the government is looking closely at such programmes at the moment and testing them against metrics provided by DEFRA. They will be assessing which schemes genuinely offset the environmental impact of IT products and some of them may not make the grade.

He was then asked 'If it is not okay for a CIO to buy offsets to green a datacentre why is it okay for suppliers to buy offsets to green their companies?'

The answer was: "It can be okay for a CIO to buy offsets as part of a balanced portfolio within the corporate plan. However, this plan should also include emission reductions and investing in efficient technology."

"It is not okay for suppliers to buy carbon offsets to ‘green’ their companies. They must look at increasing the efficiency of their products in line with the European Eco-Design of Energy-Using Products Directive which promotes the development of products with reduced emissions both in production and throughout their lifecycle."

All-in-all a pretty negative view of offsets.

Offsetting as last resort

Many suppliers think offsetting is viable but only after direct power reduction efforts have been undertaken.

For example, Memset which operates in the web hosting/datacentre market. Its MD, Kate Craig-Wood, said: "I would say that CIOs need to look at more than offsetting since there are massive inefficiencies in most datacentres, and conversely this means that there are large efficiency gains to be had."

"In many legacy datacentres only 40 percent of the power entering the building reaches servers, whereas in modern datacentres that figure can be taken up to 70 percent. Offsetting is great, but first "big wins" should be looked at. Servers themselves are another area for good gains - in the last 18 months we have seen power requirements of basic "workhorse" rackmount servers halve while their performance has doubled."

Storage vendor Copan has an equivalent view. Martin Cooper, its pre-sales engineering director, said: "Buying carbon offsets is one method of lowering the impact of carbon emissions, but there are other solutions that a CIO could consider that may be more effective."

"Firstly, to address the company’s overall carbon footprint, a CIO could employ technologies such as teleworking, and other video conferencing techniques which reduce energy consumption by minimising the need to travel."

"Secondly, a CIO could increase datacentre efficiency through the use of virtualisation technology, increased utilisation, and datacentre technology such as Copan's enterprise-class MAID system technology." He reckons that this delivers a cost savings ranging from 75 to 90 percent of energy per unit of storage, and up to a tenfold reduction in footprint.

"CIOs should also consider the benefits that renewable energy technologies can bring to a company’s overall energy budget, for example, the use of solar panels."

There is a lot to do in Copan's view before carbon offsets should be placed on the table.

The datacentre's financial situation has to be taken into account. Here is Dave Anderson of Verari: " Carbon Credits are primarily useful when there are both:

1) businesses that have relatively easy improvements that can be made but that do not have the economic wherewithal to make the changes, and,

2) businesses that are locked into long-term capital investments that are very expensive to change but do have the financial resources to contribute to reducing carbon emissions.

"When those conditions exist it is good for the overall economy to allow money to be passed from one company to another to fix the easy problems first. The very hard problems presumably become easier over time because of either technology improvement or simply because the depreciated value of an offending asset is reduced over time."

In the case of IT the users both:

- have money - IT resources continue to grow and be renewed since technology change is still rampant,
- have great options for reducing energy usage.

"In this case I believe the issue is not carbon emissions. IT uses electricity. The source of the electricity is the right place to apply credits and taxes to ensure the proper environmental priorities are followed. The issue in IT is; how do we use less electricity for the work accomplished? There are many technological advancements available to improve energy efficiency and the customers have the money to pay for them."

"My personal estimate is that the typical datacentre can be configured to use between 50-75 percent less energy with modern equipment and techniques."

Although starting from a more finance-related position Anderson ends up in the same place; go for direct GHG cuts.

No positive support

We find no positive support for offsets from suppliers. We might take a view that says, in general, suppliers would prefer you to buy kit, their kit, to reduce GHG emissions, than buy offsets; it's in their natural interest to do so. Copan and Netezza might be an example of this.

But many suppliers here have taken a more general approach, arguing that datacentre operators should cut their GHG emissions directly using a variety of methods and not just buying the supplier's kit.

The natural conclusion from this is to look at offsets, if you must, as very much a last resort, only to be used after other datacentre GHG reduction measures have been tried enthusiastically.