Sustainable Mainframe

Why should we care about sustainable computing?

I’d always considered the IT sector to be pretty sustainable until I discovered some alarming facts. 

The IT systems that run our world are now responsible for around 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s on par with the airline industry. And resource consumption is growing at an alarming rate. Data center energy usage has doubled over the last decade and now accounts for a whopping 3 percent of the world’s total energy use. 

Where will we be in another ten years, unless we adopt a more sustainable approach to IT?

What exactly do we mean by sustainable IT?

Sustainable IT or ‘green computing’ is all about minimizing the harmful impact of IT on the environment. 

Sustainability goals include:

  • Reducing carbon emissions
  • Reducing energy consumption
  • Sourcing raw materials responsibly
  • Minimizing electronic waste
  • Increasing the use of renewable resources

To get a true picture of sustainability you have to look at the whole lifecycle of a computer system, from design and manufacture to how it’s used and—eventually—disposed of. 

The part in the middle—how well a computer system is utilized and managed—is hugely important for sustainability. It also varies greatly between, and even within, organizations. That’s one reason why it’s very difficult to make absolute judgments about one computer platform being ‘greener’ than another. How you run your data center, for example, has a major impact.   

My favorite illustration of this conundrum comes from the quaint seaside town of Exmouth, UK. In Exmouth’s leisure center, a groundbreaking immersion cooling solution is capturing heat generated from servers at an onsite data center and using it to heat the swimming pool. This initiative promises to reduce the pool’s gas requirements by 62 percent and cut carbon emissions by 25.8 tons. All great news, but it also goes to show that there are few absolutes. Here, the downside of mass heat loss from servers is being offset by a more efficient data center environment.

So when thinking about sustainability at an individual system and organization level the motto should perhaps be ‘It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it that counts.’ 

Nevertheless, if you want to increase sustainability it’s important to scrutinize any platform you’re using and keep the pressure on all suppliers to be greener. Here are four questions to think about—let’s see how the mainframe stacks up.

1. How green is your supplier?

When purchasing for sustainability, the first place to look is at your supplier. In the mainframe world that really comes down to only one company: IBM. 

IBM is very actively engaged with sustainability and has announced initiatives such as reducing water use in water-stressed regions, eliminating non-essential plastic from its packaging, and setting sustainability goals—such as emissions reductions—for its suppliers. In 2022 IBM launched a major environmental initiative, the IBM Sustainability Accelerator, which is using IBM technology to increase access to clean energy in vulnerable global communities. More recently, IBM launched a new solution to help companies calculate carbon emissions for their IBM cloud workloads.

Currently, IBM ranks 42nd out of 1,103 technology companies against the ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) rating, which is a guide for ethical investing.

2. Is the platform designed and manufactured with sustainability front and center?

As every mainframe aficionado will know, IBM zSystems are designed for performance and efficiency like no other platform—and that means you can do more with less.

Here’s one mind-boggling statistic: thanks to the new Telum chip the IBM z16 can deliver 300 billion deep-learning interference operations per day with less than 1 millisecond response time, allowing real-time fraud detection on every credit card transaction it processes. And while the platform is getting more powerful, it’s also becoming more energy efficient. The capacity per kilowatt of zSystems has increased with every generation and is now 100 times greater compared with the first generation.

zSystems use less power for processing large volumes of data than other computing systems, resulting in energy savings and a smaller data center footprint. Modern mainframes also take fewer resources to build than an x86 server farm of equivalent power.

IBM says that consolidating workloads on five LinuxONE Emperor 4 systems or IBM z16 systems instead of comparable x86 servers can reduce energy consumption by 75 percent, space by 50 percent, and carbon footprint by over 850 metric tons annually. 

Mainframes are getting physically smaller, too. IBM recently announced the new single-frame and rack-mounted z16 and LinuxONE Rockhopper 4 models, which take up less space in the data center and, in the case of the rack-mounted option, allow you to reuse standard 19-inch data racks.

3. Is it easy to use the platform in a sustainable way?

While it’s ultimately up to the individual organization to make sure it’s using hardware and software efficiently, vendors can help by providing tools to monitor and manage the platform.

IBM provides partition-level power and efficiency monitoring on the z16 and LinuxONE through its hardware management console (HMC). This enables you to identify areas for savings (such as power utilized by unused CPU) and report on energy consumption to satisfy your sustainability commitments. 

In 2022, IBM introduced AI-powered application resource management to tackle overprovisioning of IT resources, helping to ensure that applications consume only the resources they need. 

There is also a long-established community of software vendors who work alongside IBM to identify areas for efficiency savings and performance improvements, from UNICOM’s operational intelligence and enterprise architecture solutions—helping businesses to map out what systems they have and what they need—to SMT Data’s capacity management solution: ‘protecting the world from excess IT consumption’.

Technology that’s flexible and easy to integrate supports sustainability by letting you mix and match resources, workloads and applications in the most optimal way. This is where hybrid cloud comes into its own. Migrating certain workloads — such as Java-based web apps — to the cloud, while utilizing the mainframe for high-volume transaction processing, can deliver the best of both worlds. 

While virtualization has long been used to minimize redundancy by running different workloads and operating systems on the same machine, containerization on the mainframe takes efficiency a step further. IBM estimates that running workloads in a container platform can reduce annual infrastructure costs by 75 percent, partly due to increased energy efficiency.

4. Is it easy to use the platform in a sustainable way?

It’s predicted that by 2030 the mountain of electrical and electronic waste produced around the world will rise to 74 million tons a year, with only 17 percent recycled. That’s over 9 Kg of waste for every man, woman, and child living on the planet today. Amongst the electrical waste are precious metals used in computing components, and hazardous materials such as mercury and chromium. 

To tackle this growing mountain we need to keep using the same hardware for longer, rather than continually replacing it. We should also reuse or recycle kits wherever possible.

Mainframes score highly for longevity: they are rugged machines, designed to last. With typical 99.999999 percent availability, your average zSystems computer is unlikely to keel over and die within a few short years.

IBM also has a good track record on reuse and recycling. IBM Global Asset Recovery Services (GARS) redeploys, refurbishes, and remanufactures pre-owned IBM hardware assets, and aims to send no more than 3 percent to landfill or incineration. That’s a higher target than other hardware vendors I have investigated, and IBM seems to be hitting it. In 2021, IBM reported that out of 18,000 tons of end-of-life hardware, 98 percent were reused, resold, or recycled. 

So, how sustainable is the mainframe?

Everyone will have their own personal view, but mine is that zSystems can definitely be used sustainably, particularly when combined with cloud technology as part of a hybrid cloud environment. LinuxONE is particularly exciting as it brings mainframe economies of scale to a whole new audience — including startups wanting to deliver IT services in an environmentally conscious way.

And while the acid test for your green IT credentials will be how you get the most out of all technologies you use, with the least environmental impact, it’s good to know that the mainframe can contribute to achieving your sustainability goals.