The practice of refreshing ICT hardware frequently is epitomised by the likes of Google and Facebook.  To postpone (but probably not avoid) the massive investment of building more data-centre space just to keep up with the growth in digital services and social networking they refresh their ICT hardware in line with Moore’s Law.  For 30 years Moore (one of the founders of Intel) has had his Law proved right – the doubling of transistors on a chip every 24 months.  Many people now put that at 18 months and Raymond Kurzweil at 1.2 years but it translates directly into halving the power demand for the same compute output or doubling the compute for the same kWh in a given time period that is shortening rather than lengthening.  With the cost of energy as it is in the UK today the average server cost is overtaken by the power it consumes after just 3 years – so refreshing hardware has a valuable power cost ratio improvement to boot.  Whilst Google have talked about 30 months refresh cycles I have heard talk of Facebook bringing this down to just 9 months – but I guess that down at that level you are making strategic purchasing decisions hand-in-glove with the likes of Intel et al.

Certainly the whole concept of ‘sweating your assets’ in a data-centre doesn’t hold water anymore and any server hardware that is beyond three years old is a prime target for huge energy savings or consolidation (and even more savings) in a virtualisation programme.

But then comes the sticky part – what to do with the e-waste.  The ‘embedded carbon’ calculation is a no-brainer – the energy savings in grid power quickly swamp the embedded energy and, in theory at least in Europe, we have the WEEE Directive to make sure that all the nasty stuff is recycled safely.  The Environment Agency in the UK runs the legislation and this is an extract from their web-site:

‘The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) was introduced into UK law in January 2007 by the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Regulations 2006.  It aims to reduce the amount of electrical and electronic equipment being produced and to encourage everyone to reuse, recycle and recover it.  The WEEE Directive also aims to improve the environmental performance of businesses that manufacture, supply, use, recycle and recover electrical and electronic equipment.   You may have obligations under the WEEE Regulations if you are a business with electrical or electronic equipment to dispose of, or if you sell electrical or electronic equipment.’

Lack of compliance with the WEEE Directive is at the heart of many people’s objection to refreshing ICT hardware, especially Greenpeace.  They argue that the e-waste finds its way into sweat-shops in the third-world where mainly child-labour is used to break down the components and recover the nasty, but valuable, materials without any regard for health or safety.  Many of the materials are injurious to health and to the environment, e.g. cadmium.  There is no doubt that this happens widely but I have no idea how much originates in any particular country.  The point must be that we the laws and they must be enforced and the end-user encouraged to refresh on energy saving grounds.

So on the face of it you are encouraged by the WEEE Directive to ‘sweat-your-assets’ under the ‘reduce the amount being produced’ part but as we have seen a short refresh cycle will save more carbon from energy efficiency gains in the short term and the end-game. The conclusion has to be to refresh every 24 months, maybe shorter but rarely longer than 36 months, but to be very careful about who you get to recycle your old stuff.  If they turn up in a beat up truck (maybe a yellow Reliant Robin with ‘Trotters International Trading’ painted down the side?) they are probably not upstanding, legal, straight, cosher …