Microsoft has been pushing Windows 7 as greener than Vista or XP, designed with a variety of energy-saving options for both IT administrators and end users. At the same time, the software giant has been pursuing internal green IT initiatives such as ultraefficient server farms. But even with efficiency tools integrated into Windows 7, how much can an operating system lower IT's overall carbon footprint?
Microsoft wants Windows 7 to be seen as green.
In an interview with eWEEK, Rob Bernard, Microsoft's chief environmental strategist, insisted that the company's newest operating system will come with environmentally friendly features baked into its infrastructure, creating greater energy efficiency (and a smaller carbon footprint) than Windows Vista or Windows XP.
"Windows 7 is the first [Microsoft] operating system to operate at this granular level" of control over energy-saving options, Bernard said. For example, "the server and client interaction allows IT [departments] to run a power-efficiency diagnostics chart" and then use that information to adjust PCs for optimum operation. IT administrators can use Group Policy, WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation) and Powercfg.exe, a command-line power management utility, to centrally manage power settings.
The Windows 7 developers were detail-oriented in their approach to energy efficiency. For example, the operating system detects which hardware ports have a device attached and powers those, as opposed to the old and marginally less efficient method of tapping each port for a plug-in. Users can click on the battery icon and select a "power plan" that offers choices over elements such as screen brightness.
System display brightness can account for as much as 40 percent of overall system power consumption; with Windows 7, the screen can dim but not go completely black when the system is left idle, saving energy but not frustrating the user with the need to awaken a black screen. Windows 7 will also reduce consumption in other areas, such as by reducing power to the wireless NIC (network interface card) when the system is plugged in, or placing the network adapter in a low-power state.
But how much of a change from previous operating systems do such steps represent?
"The most important thing an OS can do for 'green' is to not subvert the power efficiency measures that are built into the hardware," Steve Kleynhans, an analyst with Gartner, said in an e-mail to eWEEK. "In the past it was not uncommon to find that certain device drivers or the way that some scheduling was done would prevent the processor from operating in its most power-efficient way.
"Windows 7 has removed some of that and has become much more aware of (and friendly to) the power management capabilities within the processor and chip set. For the most part we aren't talking massive reductions in power, but every little bit helps when you multiply it by the millions of machines that will run Windows 7 and the thousands of hours they will operate."
The operating system's default settings—when it sleeps, for example, how it utilizes resources when idle and how it manages processor power—have been designed to deliver energy savings. Much of the reduction in IT's carbon footprint, though, inevitably comes through hardware.
"The biggest improvements to the carbon footprint of PCs will continue to be related to changes in manufacturing, hardware operational characteristics and how users use the devices," Kleynhans said. "The OS can have some impact optimizing how the hardware functions, and possibly can sway usage patterns, but there is only so much it can actually accomplish."
In addition to the energy-saving adjustments integrated into Windows 7, Microsoft has kicked off a handful of other green initiatives in 2009.
Microsoft's Redmond Ridge 1, to be operating at full capacity by spring 2010, will host 35,000 servers within self-contained pods and streamline the company's carbon consumption by 12,000 metric tons per year, the company has said. Keeping the 57,000-square-foot facility at an optimal temperature will rely on a system of evaporative coolers instead of chillers.
Redmond Ridge 1 is meant to take the place of server labs on the Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Wash., with its servers running Hyper-V and Windows Server 2008 R2 to provide remote access for testers and developers. Although built for internal use, its pod model could be utilized for energy savings by other Microsoft facilities in the future.
"Redmond Ridge was an example of thinking outside the box," Bernard said. "We save 30 percent in terms of energy costs [versus using the old server labs]." Other server farms, including Microsoft's Dublin facility, will use similar methods to boost their energy efficiency.
Tools such as "virtualization, machine consolidation and bringing down systems not being used" will also help lower the energy needs of server farms, Bernard said. Microsoft's own internal policy has the company purchasing only devices with an Energy Star 5.0 rating.
Microsoft has launched a number of projects on the environmental-sustainability front throughout 2009, including the Environmental Sustainability Dashboard for Microsoft Dynamics AX released Feb. 9. In order to help businesses reduce their carbon footprint by providing a granular view of energy costs, greenhouse gas emissions and other factors, the application uses analytics licensed from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Energy.
Originally code-named Niagara, the Environmental Sustainability Dashboard can automatically gather relevant data once the user inputs the units and quantities to be tracked. It also allows for a drill-down into topics such as "KPI List" and "Energy Consumption."
On the consumer side, Microsoft released Hohm, a Website that allows users to track their home energy consumption, on June 24. Hohm starts off by asking users for a postal code and e-mail address, followed by a series of questions about their energy consumption, such as, "What type of energy does your water heater use?"
Based on that information, Hohm offers "Your Home Energy Report," with an estimated cost breakdown and energy-savings recommendations. By the end of 2009, Microsoft expects to have partnered with 10 utility companies, allowing those companies' customers to automatically upload their energy consumption information to Hohm.
With PCs, as with Hohm, the ultimate energy savings come not from monitoring options, but from how users actually utilize their systems. "Running flashy, power-hungry screen savers, leaving machines on when not in use or always running machines with the 'performance' power profile [subverts] any efforts of the OS or the hardware makers to reduce power," Gartner's Kleynhans said.
So is Windows 7 truly an example of green IT?
"It's more than just lip service," Kleynhans said. "Its enhancements certainly help, and are a step in the right direction."