Server Disposal Goes Green

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Sep 20, 2007


Historically, IT equipment hasn't been environmentally friendly. Server vendors are only now working to change this. Getting the most publicity currently are multicore chips, in-rack cooling systems and energy-efficient power supplies, which all help cut down on electricity consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

Building a greener server room starts not with the purchase of new hardware, but with how you dispose of the hardware you're replacing.

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The IEEE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are no doubt driving this, as they develop benchmarks to show exactly how efficient servers are.

But there are other environmental implications that IT managers must take into account, server disposal, being a prime example. Buying lots of new energy efficient gear is only an environmentally sound practice if one disposes of the old gear properly.

"Compliance with environmental regulations and social responsibility are important," said Bob Houghton, president of Redemtech (Columbus, Ohio), a company that disposes of used data center gear. "You don't want to have to explain to shareholders or customers why the equipment is showing up in a dump in Pakistan or going to a blast furnace in Canada."

Getting the Lead Out

Bottle and can recycling programs have proven extremely effective. Not only has the percentage winding up in landfills dropped drastically, but roadsides are also no longer littered with discarded cans the way they were in the 1960s. Municipal toxic waste collection programs also help ensure that chemicals from batteries, motor oil, paint and household cleaners don't wind up in the ground water.

Electronic waste, however, remains a growing concern. Cathode-ray tubes (CRT)s contain lead, and liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors contain mercury. Batteries and semiconductors contain cadmium. The flame retardant used in circuit boards is toxic, and wires are coated with PVC insulation. This wasn't a big issue in the mainframe days, but it certainly is now.

In the United States, nearly a billion cell phones were manufactured worldwide last year; the year before, 130,000 computers a day were trashed. Research firm Gartner (Stamford, Conn.) said that it anticipates between 2006 and 2010, 925 million PCs and more than 46 million servers will be sold, mostly replacing older equipment.

As a result, more than 2 million tons of electronic waste is already going to U.S. landfills every year. Even worse is what happens overseas. A large portion of U.S. and European waste is being sent to countries in Asia and Africa with lax environmental and employee safety regulations. This transfers the toxic burden to third-world countries, despite agreements, such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal — agreements designed to prevent such actions.

"Businesses need to figure out their policy and their plan for disposing of different types of equipment," said Gartner research vice president Frances O'Brien. "It is part of the ongoing cost of business, and they need to plan for it."

Data Destruction

Creating a disposal plan starts with knowing what equipment the company owns and the data it contains.

"Most customers have pretty good processes for procuring new equipment," said Daniel Ransdell, general manager of IBM Global Asset Recovery Services (Armonk, N.Y.), which disposes of more than 22,000 machines weekly. "But when you ask them about end of lifecycle management, a lot of them look at you with a blank stare."

A server asset management system must address both the hardware and the data. When a server is taken out of production, the data should be erased and the results fully documented. That evidence can then be given to auditors showing that the company is in compliance with regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA) in the United States or the Data Privacy Directive in the European Union.

Disks can be degaussed or shredded, but server disposal specialists generally follow the U.S. Department of Defense's standard — three complete overwrites of the disk with random 0s and 1s. The overwriting software should then keep a record of all the disks it cleanses, along with the tests showing the data was effectively erased.

"The key to effective data management at the end of the lifecycle is the audit trail," said Houghton. "You should be able to say 'I took these 200 hard drives out of service, these are the serial numbers, and here is the record of sanitation.' That closes the information lifecycle on those devices."

Handling the Hardware

Once the data is cleansed, the next issue is what to do with the servers themselves. It is tempting to try to sell them and recover any residual value, but O'Brien said this is rarely cost-effective.

"Some companies are skilled at selling the equipment, but more often than not they aren't," she says. "It involves a lot of labor and logistics."

Instead, she recommends leaving it to a company that specializes in the area. If the equipment is leased, the vendor will simply take it away at the end of the lease period. If it is not leased, you can often get the company selling you the replacement equipment to take it off your hands. Jim O'Grady, director of Technology Value Solutions for Hewlett-Packard Financial Services (Murray Hill, N.J.) is responsible for all of HP's lease returns, and as a result he also oversees the disposal of much non-HP, customer-owned equipment.

"We find all the stuff that they were hiding in cubes, warehouses and closets," he said. "Then, we get them onto a refresh cycle that is more consistent and helps turn it into a value recovery proposition."

There are also companies that focus strictly on equipment removal and disposal. Redemtech deals with a wide range of equipment, but others, such as Network Liquidators (Oldsmar, Fla.) and PC Disposal (Kansas City, Mo.), specialize in certain types of gear.

Once an equipment disposal company receives the gear, it goes through a series of steps. First, it wipes any data from the disk and reloads the operating system, if needed. Next, a series of tests is run on the equipment. If it is in good shape, it is repackaged and resold.

"There is a worldwide market for data center equipment," said Houghton. "Some [hardware] that is no longer valuable in this country has value in developing countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East."

Some equipment is more profitable to disassemble and sell as parts rather than as a whole unit. Anything remaining then goes through a recycling process to extract hazardous materials or precious metals, before sending the remainder to a landfill. Ransdell said that 15 percent of what IBM takes in is converted to parts, while less than 1 percent winds up in a landfill.

When a company is on a regular equipment upgrade cycle, the old equipment may have some resale value. The primary concerns, however, are data security and environmental compliance. Gartner's O'Brien said that in most cases, you can expect to pay to have the equipment properly disposed of, but that is still less-expensive than the fines and bad PR resulting from data breaches and toxic waste dumping. She advises IT directors visit the premises of any equipment disposal company they are planning to use to make sure they do the job properly.

"You have to verify who you are doing business with is doing it in a safe environmental manner," said O'Brien. "Some companies haul the gear away but just dump it at the side of the road or in a landfill, and the customer then had to pay to get that equipment cleaned up."

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