Circular IT is a model for procuring and managing IT in a more sustainable way. Models and frameworks provide us with a simplified representation of complex concepts and systems, making them easier to understand. They help us to identify relationships, patterns and causalities. This makes it easier to draw conclusions and make predictions.
Additionally, they can serve as a common language and provide structure for communication and collaboration.
Linear and circular economy models refer to different approaches to the use and disposal of resources.
The Linear Economy Model
In a linear economy model, resources are extracted, used to produce goods and are then disposed of as waste. Linear economy models often rely on the concept of planned obsolescence, where products are designed to become obsolete and be replaced after a certain period of time. This practice drives continuous demand for new products, perpetuating the take-make-waste cycle of the linear economy.
The production of mobile devices, laptop and desktop computers follow this model.
The Windows Operating System and Planned Obsolescence
Over time, PCs become slow, unreliable or no longer compatible with the latest software and security updates. This can have an impact on employee productivity and vulnerability to cyber-attack. However, the constraints are rarely related to the physical hardware, but instead to the Windows operating system.
The size of the OS itself is such that you need to reserve a relatively large amount of CPU and RAM just to run it. The design of the Windows OS leads to the computer being bloated with often unnecessary programs that run in the background, which consume memory and processing power, slowing performance.
Data on a Windows based hard drive can become fragmented, causing the PC to slow down, as it has to work harder to access files.
Windows is also more vulnerable to viruses and malware, which may not be particularly harmful, or even noticable. However, they accumulate over time, impacting performance. To protect against viruses and malware, Windows PCs need to run anti-virus software, which is another drain on compute resources, again making the machine run slowly.
Upgrading the operating system is one way to remedy some of these issues. However, each time Microsoft release a new version of Windows, they increase the hardware requirements to run it.
Windows 11, the latest OS version from Microsoft supports only eighth generation and newer Intel Core CPUs, along with equivalently recent AMD processors. This makes millions of otherwise perfectly good PCs around the world “obsolete”. The amount of waste, unnecessary resource consumption and carbon emissions generated as a result is frankly criminal.
The Circular Economy Model
The circular economy model aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, minimizing waste and promoting the re-use and refurbishment of products. This approach aligns with the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (3R) framework.
Circular IT – 3Rs
Circular IT helps to respond to the multiple crises the world is currently facing. These include the climate crisis, the cost of living crisis, the e-waste crisis and the natural resource crisis.
To maximise the environmental sustainability in IT, the biggest bang for the buck comes from product life extension. Looking at ways to get more use from the embedded CO2 in the equipment we already have means that more CO2 is not generated, more scarce resources are not used and more waste is not created.
To understand the potential impact, consider one of the most popular business laptops in use, the Lenovo ThinkPad. According to Lenovo, an estimated 379kgCO2eq are emitted in the manufacturing, transport and end of life phase of each laptop.
Replace this machine after 4 years, it will have been responsible for 94.75kgCO2eq in each year of it’s life.
Keep it for 8 years, and that reduces to 47.38kgCO2eq per year. That’s just one machine. Many organisations deploy hundreds, or even thousands of machines. The opportunity for savings is immense.
Sustainability and circularity are in essence about mindset. They require a change of thinking. Standard practice in corporate IT is to ‘refresh’ devices every three to five years. This is not a sustainable practice and we need to challenge the status quo.
We need to reframe our thinking around when a device has reached the end of it’s life.
The problem, as explained earlier is the Windows operating system. The solution is relatively straightforward. If we deliver Windows from the cloud, we no longer need to have it on the physical device. This then frees IT from the constraints that prevent them from using computers for longer. Product life extension is the essence of circular IT
If we want to reduce consumption, reduce emissions and reduce waste in IT, sharing is a key part of the solution. Sharing of IT resource is made possible by a few key innovations, most of which are now fairly commonplace.
It is now over 20 years since VMware introduced a system to virtualise x86 based servers. Before this revolutionary system, every application an enterprise needed to run their business would require a full physical server. Typically though, only 10 – 15% of server capacity was ever utilised. This under utilisation created a lot of waste and unnecessary cost.
VMware succeeded in logicaly partitioning a server into a number of separate virtual machines. This innovation has had a massive impact on reducing the number of physical machines a company needed to manage in their datacentre. This in turn reduced requirements for physical rack space, power and cooling. It also had the effect of slashing server costs for enterprise IT.
The next evolution of virtualisation led again by VMware together with Citrix was to provide desktop solutions in the datacentre. Multiple desktops could be hosted on a virtual server, with multiple virtual servers on a physical host. These desktops were accessed from thin clients, which are small light-weight computers with limited functionality, designed to access remote virtual workspaces.
Virtual desktops, which are sometimes referred to as VDI, or hosted desktops were promoted predominantly as a security tool. Information stored in the datacentre was secure from external and internal threats because it was held on the company’s internal network and not on individual devices. A raft of laws and regulations exposing public listed and financial service companies in particular to punitive fines, as well as reputational damage. Virtual desktops were widely adopted by banks, investment and insurance companies to mitigate these risks.
In addition to security, VDI offered improved resource utilisation, greater flexibility and reduced power consumption. New office builds were being designed to take account of the lower power consumption and reduced heat generation from thin clients vs traditional desktop computers.
Could computing is a huge step towards Circular IT. Together, Amazon, Google and Microsoft (even if they are all ‘evil’ in their own way) have collectively started to shift mindsets and behaviours away from buying ‘tin’ to subscribing to services.
With cloud computing, companies no longer need to buy servers, or rent rack space in a datacentre. They don’t need to deploy VMware. Cloud providers take care of all of that. Cloud isn’t just infrastructure as a service (IaaS). Each of the main cloud providers offer in the region of 200 different services from artificial intelligence to virtual networks.
Amongst these services, the one that has the power to extend the Circular IT concept from the datacentre to the individual PC is the virtual desktop. With cloud desktop services like Amazon WorkSpaces, or Azure Virtual Desktop an expensive and complex Citrix or VMware Horizon deployment is no longer needed. This democratizes VDI and makes it available to companies of all size and budget. The impact on Citrix has been devastating. Earlier this month they announced a massive round of job cuts.
Using virtual workspaces in the cloud suddenly gives us enormous freedom when it comes to the physical endpoint. With Windows in the cloud, there’s no need to have Windows installed on the device. This is a game changer.
Many of the factors that drive companies and individuals to replace their computers are linked to the Windows operating system. The OS takes up a lot of computer resource. Each new version demands higher hardware specifications. If you want to upgrade the OS, you often have to upgrade the physical device.
Windows is also susceptible to bloatware and other issues that cause performance to deteriorate over time, until eventually your PC is so slow it becomes unusable.
The Operating System needs to be constantly monitored and regularly patched to keep it secure. Even then it can be vulnerable to attack.
The solution, with Windows in the cloud, is to convert the physical endpoint into a lightweight thin client, similar to those used by large banks with their Citrix deployments. This removes the limitations of Windows OS as mentioned above. It is inherently more secure and also enables produce life extension.
Using a thin client OS instead of Windows also opens the door to sourcing lower spec equipment. You no longer need masses of RAM or CPU on the machine to get good performance from it.
This allows us to think more expansively about circular supply. Not only can our existing machines be used for much longer, but when we grow our workforce and need new machines, we can source remanufactured or refurbished equipment. This reuses the bulk of the componentry in the original machine, but returns it to an as good as new state, avoiding the resource and carbon intensive process of manufacturing new equipment. Instead of disposing of, or even recycling our own end of life equipment, specialist remanufacturing or refurbishing companies can in many cases bring new life to it.
We now come full circle. Here we need to rethink what it is we really need from a computer. What are we buying? Is it form factor and stylish design? Is it performance – CPU, RAM, storage, etc? Alternatively, do we really just need access to the Internet, the applications and the information we need to do our work. Why buy a computer at all? Why not subscribe to hardware in the same way that we subscribe to software? Someone else is then responsible for the repair, maintenance, security and life-cycle management of the device. It means that you can flex up and down easily to respond to changes in your workforce. As with much else, isn’t it time that the PC moved to an OPEX model the way so many other business expenses have?
Do You Know How Much CO2 is Embedded in Your Computers?
When you’re on a journey, it is not only useful to know where you are going and what the direction of travel is. It helps to know your point of departure. Your baseline.
We can help. Let’s have an initial conversation about the equipment you’re using. We can give you some numbers to help you start reducing the carbon footprint of your IT. You can also learn more about circular IT and sustainability here. Get an initial idea of how much you can save using our Scope 3 Emissions Calculator.
Sustainable. Smart. Secure.