Go Green, Save Green with Linux

Put Linux to work to save energy, money and the environment.
What Are the Distributions Doing?

The main distribution providers are core contributors to many a green project and are integrating them into their releases as rapidly as possible. For instance, Red Hat, Ubuntu and SUSE Linux all committed publicly to contribute to and make available the innovations from Lesswatts.org.

Nick Car, Red Hat Chief Technical Spokesperson, emphasized that his firm's green efforts “extend considerably beyond consolidation”, including “the provision of highly optimized paravirt device drivers for fully virtualized guests.” This means more and more systems will be able to be virtualized, broadening the utilization and impact of the technology.

Car also touted Red Hat's collaboration with chip vendors and Open Source communities to optimize power consumption in areas such as:

  • CPUfreq clock scaling in collaboration with Intel. Clock scaling allows for changing the clock speed of the running CPU on the fly, thus reducing the power the CPU consumes.

  • AMD's PowerNow! speed throttling and power-saving technology (includes CPUfreq work).

  • Intel's PowerTOP Project and using it to identify power-inefficient algorithms on all server applications, as well as to audit the kernel for pollers. Car points out that “We have been doing this work for the past year, and it has accumulated to the point where we are seeing meaningful power savings.”

  • Suspend/resume/hibernate work on laptops, including features such as automatic screen backlight intensity reduction as a laptop becomes idle.

Red Hat also will integrate the new tickless kernel in Fedora 9 and subsequently in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. “Red Hat has been a key developer of this technology”, says Car, “which allows the kernel to properly idle itself when appropriate.”

Over in Ubuntu's camp, Gerry Carr, Canonical's Marketing Manager, stressed that his company “is not directly involved in green computing per se, but indirectly we are massively involved”, adding that “we built an enabling technology for green computing without it being directly built for this purpose.” Regarding virtualization, Carr also stressed the “optimization of the kernel for paravirt ops, which is a long way of saying you can run more VMs on less iron using Ubuntu, thus saving energy there.”

Carr also highlighted the presence of Ubuntu on low-cost computers, which typically utilize less energy, such as Intel's Classmate PC. The Classmate is targeted at students in poor countries. Similarly, Ubuntu actively supports thin-client computing through partnership with NComputing and other providers. One example is the deployment of terminal desktops for every child in the Republic of Macedonia (180,000 terminals) on only 20,000 PCs.

Carr further explained that the Xubuntu version of its distribution “is built specifically to run on older, less-powerful machines and thus extend their shelf life significantly”, and that it has evidence that “a PC running Ubuntu is significantly more power-efficient than one running Windows”.

Finally, Carr notes that “As an organisation, we are great believers in the multiplier effect, in providing the means for others to take action. We couldn't try to directly support the number of initiatives that happen purely by providing a product that is free to use and redistribute and that we freely maintain.”

Regarding SUSE Linux, Roger Levy, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Open Platform Solutions for Novell, noted that his company is focused on “improvements in policy-driven power management and system monitors for servers, along with better suspend functionality for laptops”.

Green PCs and Other Equipment

Just because a piece of hardware is cheap, doesn't mean it is cheapest in the long run. Whether that hardware is expensive in environmental terms is harder to calculate, but is fortunately becoming easier as hardware providers seek competitive advantage via green credentials and tools to evaluate product impact.

The difference between running Linux with its tickless kernel on AMD or Intel processors is probably a wash. Both companies have strong commitments to environmental protection and reducing energy consumption. A more important choice is whether your hardware solution is built with an environmental ethos in mind and offers maximum power conservation, avoidance of toxins and recycling options. A few exceptional, Linux-focused companies are worth considering in this regard.

Zonbu PC and Laptop

Zonbu is perhaps the hardware provider most obsessed with being green and sees its environmental laurels as core selling points. The company offers two interesting and green machines, the Zonbu PC and the Zonbu Notebook. Both machines are pre-installed with Gentoo Linux and offer environmental advantages like few other PCs do. Zonbu also offers interesting features, such as on-line storage plans and separate versions for newbies and experienced users. (See the February 2008 issue of Linux Journal for a detailed review of the Zonbu desktop.)

Zonbu is attempting to cover all the environmental bases, which is summed up in its Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) Gold rating for strong overall environmental performance. Only 12 desktop machines have reached this mark to date. The Zonbu sisters deliver significant gains in energy efficiency, achieving the US EPA Energy Star 4 rating. This translates to a power requirement of only 10–15 Watts, depending on the load. Most PCs of similar caliber (without monitor) will gulp 60–100 Watts or more, depending on numerous factors. Zonbu's marketing people tell me that you'll save over 1,200 kilowatt hours during the course of a year, which seems generous given their assumption that a typical PC averages 175 Watts. However, even with a more-conservative savings estimate of 600 kilowatt hours per year, you'll probably save more than $60 on electricity during the course of a year, based on a cost of $0.10 per kilowatt hour.

A unique Zonbu bonus involves automatic purchases of carbon offsets from the firm Climate Trust, which invests in projects that reduce net carbon emissions society-wide, such as wind energy or tree planting. In addition, Zonbu builds its hardware with recycling in mind and follows the European RoHS Directive, such that no more than 25% of the hazardous substances (such as lead, mercury and cadmium) that go into typical desktops are used. Finally, when you're ready to upgrade, Zonbu takes back your old device and foots the bill for its recycling. Zonbu says it is “determined that no Zonbu device contributes to the problem” of e-waste.

Figure 2. The new Zonbu laptop follows in the green footsteps of its older kin, the Zonbu PC. Zonbu even will offset your carbon emissions for you!


James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal.