by December 4, 2007 0 comments

Two years ago, I spoke with a friend who was the IT head of a BPO with 600
seats and counting. They were facing a problem. With power cuts of up to four
hours, there was heavy backup in place: a giant UPS, battery banks, and
generators. But as they added seats, they found they were approaching the limits
of the backup capacity: they would have to upgrade everything-UPS, battery
banks, generators, if more than 100 seats were added.

A little green
Here’s what I suggested-instead of investing more in backup power capacity,
they could spend half the money in buying new lower power PCs, along with LCDs
instead of the CRT displays they currently used. And that meant they could go up
to 200 new seats within the same backup capacity.

They followed the advice and lived happily ever after, at least for 11
months. By then, they had added 170 seats and found that now the airconditioning
was inadequate. The place was simply too warm with all the extra people.
Solution: more split ACs. But the generators would not take the extra load. And
in a three-hour cust, the place was too warm to run without ACs.

The story so far:
  • Little business focus on
    saving energy in India
  • No single driver in the
    average company
  • But the high cost of
    backup power is forcing businesses to rethink
  • Even SMBs recover the
    investment in ‘greener tech’
  • Mobile world contributes
    to rest of tech: displays, low-power processors, power mgmt, cooling
  • Simple step to greener
    tech: ‘How to squeeze more hours-or more seats-with our backup (UPS,
    generators etc) investment?’
  • LCD, laptops, low-power
    desktops, application consolidation, spot or zone cooling in data centers,
    all add up to high savings in backup costs

We spoke again, and he asked: how could they cut down power draw further? We
did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and figured that if they replaced
about 50 of the existing 15” CRTs with LCDs, that would allow at least a two-tonne
split AC, and so on. It didn’t sound like much. But many displays were anyway
due for upgrade, and a plan was put in place to gradually replace 200 CRTs with
LCDs. Three 2-tonne ACs were installed in ‘hot spots.’

And last summer, he reported a miracle: the whole place had cooled down to 26
celsius on an average. That couldn’t be just three ACs at work. What was going
on? Here’s what we then realized. Those 200 LCDs not only saved power, but
generated less heat, almost 10 kilowatts less than the CRTs they replaced! And
that needed less cooling. So the three ACs were enough; the backup generators
and UPSs could handle the setup without a problem. Since then, the company has
replaced another 200 displays with LCDs, and plans to replace all of them by

Yes, the LCDs cost money-but this CIO figured the savings in backup power,
both capex and op-ex (including gen-set diesel), and the convenience of not
having to disrupt and upgrade everything was worth it. Needless to say, as with
most BPOs and IT services companies, all future PC purchases are with LCDs.

SMBs need power too
Earlier this year, an old friend and classmate called me. She was setting up
a small company and wanted tips on the tech infrastructure. She needed seven
networked desktops but zero laptops-they did not need the mobility. We discussed
options: desktops, network, UPSs. We spoke about their needs. They’d rented two
rooms in a South Delhi house, and were likely to move out in a year if they

But the clincher was that the area had up to five hours of power cuts daily.
That meant heavy UPSs, inverters, batteries. They couldn’t put up a generator.
To cut a long story short, she went in for seven laptops, each priced Rs 9,000
on average higher than a comparable desktop. So why did she spend Rs 63,000
extra for mobility that she didn’t need? Largely because of power. Not the cost
of the utility-supplied ‘mains’ power, but the cost of backup. The laptops would
run three to four hours on their own, and after that, well, a single 1 kVA UPS
was enough to power the entire network, a small server (with an LCD screen), and
router. The bonus: they simply put in a wireless router, instead of wiring.

Was it worth it? Well, as it happens, they had to move to Noida because of a
likely municipal-corporation crackdown on ‘home offices.’ The shift was done in
a day, with the entire hardware packed into a car, and set up again in the new
office. This time, the savings on backup power-including the ‘convenience
savings’-made for the extra spend on the laptops.

  • Rising impact of mobile world. Common
    technology (e.g. mobile platforms, chips devices such as LCDs increasingly
    used on the desktop)
  • Rising usage of notebooks in businesses
    drops power and heat
  • Legal mandate for more energy efficient
  • More efficient, intelligent switched power
    supplies to reduce standby power drain

The value of power
These two companies are opposites: a now-established, nearly 1,000-employee
midsize company, and a startup with less than ten people. But they both
discovered the value of going green. Not as a CSR initiative, or out of concern
for the environment-to put it bluntly, they probably couldn’t care less. But
they discovered green economics: green business is good business.

That fact is actually easier to discover in much of India because of the cost
of backup power. Long backup is a necessity because of long power cuts of five
hours or more in a day. The more power-guzzling your equipment, the more you
have to spend on running and buying the equipment. And that highlights the value
of power. The value of power is not so easy to recognize when power is in
abundance, on tap, from the utility. Then it’s just the cost of power: Rs 2 or 5
or whatever a unit costs you (and hey that ain’t cheap in India).

But oh, when the power is a limited, finite store, such as in a UPS that’s
running out. That’s when you learn its value. The value of power becomes even
more obvious when it is even more limited. As it is with mobile electronics,
such as laptops. How often have you been on edge because your mobile phone
battery is down to its last notch, and you’re hours away from a recharge? And
then that important call comes and you’re really tense, glancing at the screen
every minute, waiting for the warning beeps?

Fortunately for us, mobile electronics are focused strongly on power
conservation, out of necessity. Mobile processors, displays, hard disks: they
all have to save power. Mobile phones are extraordinary examples of power
saving, and yet their batteries are unable to keep up with the demands of their
applications and hardware.

And the good thing is, a lot of the technology spills over onto the desktop
and the server. The low-power processor is the standard today. It isn’t about
raw clock speed any more, it’s all about performance per watt.

Seeing the light
And a footnote. The BPO that saved power with those LCDs? It’s discovered
that it was wasting quite a bit of power elsewhere. First, it was in this
mostly-glass building, but with curtains drawn to block the glare… it was using
electric lights all over. With clever use of translucent shutters, it has
managed to use more natural light and cut down on power wastage. Better rubber
seals on the windows and doors have helped the aircon further. Its old backup
power-still not upgraded-now has headroom for more growth.

And the company’s discovered religion: The value of power. And it’s found:
The heck with the environment. Green business is good business.

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