Opinion

Is the IT industry asleep at the wheel?

There's a brilliant new mobile app that helps you save money on petrol by being a better driver. You put your smartphone on the dashboard of your car and it monitors how you drive by measuring the lurch factor in your driving.

There's nothing more wasteful than a driving style characterised by aggressive revving and heavy braking, so if you think ahead and take your foot off the accelerator when you see that the lights are red in 200 yards time, you will burn less fuel and get more miles per gallon. Or should that be metres for your litre?

CrashThe app, by measuring your heavy footed-ness, makes you think what you're doing and try to drive more efficiently. It has another amazing effect, in that driving becomes less angst ridden and more enjoyable.

Surely that's the key to winning friends in the current economic crisis. Make life simpler and make your customer feel clever. The hallmark of a genius is someone who explains complex stuff so simply that they make you feel clever. If you learn to understand, say, software defined networking (SDN) or virtualisation you can start to feel like a genius. But usually that's only possible because the person who explains it to you is rather clever themselves.

Sadly, few people in the IT industry seem to share this view. There are too many people who want to compensate for their own insecurities by making you feel bad too. Misery loves company, as the saying goes. Confusion is quite gregarious too – as is insecurity.

You can find them all at an IT trade show. Often you will see all three on a discussion panel, where they exhort the audience to take some sort of action they don't really understand themselves. It's the bland leading the bland.

So it's a joy when you find people who have made a simple discovery and want to share their joy with others.

Into this category I would place Brian Waddell, director of Norman Disney & Young, who discovered how companies can cut their fuel bills and shrink their carbon footprint. They need to stop blowing money on fans, he said.

The fans on a server account for 15% of their power consumption, Waddell discovered, by tinkering with them and measuring the effect of temperature on the server's performance. At the risk of over simplifying a complicated study, his top finding is this: If you don't switch the fans on, the server still works.

Think how much Santander UK, with its 4,000 servers, could save if it could switch all its fans off. But it can't because reconfiguring those fans is a tricky and time consuming business. The controlling code, that determines when a rise in server temperature indicates when the fans should be switched on, is buried in the processor. It's an algorithm, embedded in a chipset, and obscured by an operating system designed to be unhelpful on this issue.

So going into system settings isn't an easy option.

For some reason, the server manufacturers don't seem to want to help with this either. “We contacted all the big five server vendors and ask them them to co-operate, but didn't get a single response. They didn't even give us background information,” said Waddell.

So much for the IT industry's green credentials.

If only a developer could create an app that could reconfigure all the fan settings on servers. Surely there's money in that!

At the same briefing, I met a small company that makes a system that makes your UPSs last longer. Instead of ditching £150,000 of kit every five years, they can make it last eight. Simple enough story, I thought. But the man selling it got all nervous about the messaging, and refused to talk about it. As if I was going to hack his phone messages, interview the neighbours and go through his bins. (Google CellWatch if you're interested).

It's no wonder the IT industry wastes so many of our precious fossil fuels. There are some terrible drivers on the information superhighway.

This was first published in November 2012

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