Question: I’d like to be a bit more eco-friendly, but not if it’s going to cost me money – is it possible for a small business to be both lean and green?

This post was originally published in 2011 in the Microsoft Small Business Centre pages: Click Ask The Experts for more

Mac_Geoff_medInterview with Geoff Courts | Operations Manager | Macnamara ICT Ltd

Businesses sometimes don’t do themselves any favours. It’s no surprise that when bankers happily dance across our TV screens with enormous bonuses bulging out of their wallets, ordinary people get a bit miffed. The hard-pressed public has an ‘us-and-them’ attitude, and businesses often don’t do much to solve the problem. It’s the same with social responsibility: big business has a reputation for being stingy with donations to charities and flagrant with the environment.

Small businesses are much more likely to do the right thing, even though they’re often the hardest pressed for cash. Gift Aid, which makes charitable donation a tax-efficient process, has encouraged millions of small and owner-managed businesses to give money. Similarly, small businesses would happily go green too – if only it would save them money into the bargain.

If you thought office computing was frugal, think again. Geoff Courts, Operations Manager at Macnamara, a managed services IT specialist in London’s Hoxton, says “Even a small office may have half a dozen PCs, laptops etc. and possibly a server, too. Then there are the printers and monitors. We’ve got into the habit of leaving these machines on constantly – 24/7 for three years or more. When you consider that these systems execute millions of processes every second, you can start to imagine how much power they eat up”.

How much power, exactly? Well, in early 2009, a widely-misquoted but nevertheless interesting Harvard report told us that about fifteen minutes of concentrated Google searching used up enough energy to boil up the water for a cup of tea. Computer processing may be invisible, but its cost isn’t negligible.

Turn on to turning off

We’ve come to leave our PCs on 24/7 for several reasons. First, in the past decade we’ve been told that PCs are designed for permanent operation; and also that delicate components are better left on than regularly switched on and off (this is certainly no longer the case). Courts adds, “From an IT support point of view, it’s hard to maintain PCs during office hours. We need to run virus scans, we need to install updates, and you don’t want to be doing that while people are using their PCs. Plus, now that IT support is run on a ‘managed services’ basis, where we try to solve problems before they occur and minimise costly on-site visits, we do as much as we can remotely – which makes out-of-hours provisioning of your network much more sensible”.

The challenge, of course, is that if you go home at, say, 6pm; and updates are scheduled for 6.30 and complete by 7pm; your PC stays on right through until you’re back at your desk at 9am the next morning. That’s 14 hours of electricity consumption for barely half an hour’s real usage. Courts says that his company (and others too) uses software which allows each user to have pre-defined activity times or to monitor activity and watch for downtime. This then lets the IT support functions kick in once the user has gone home – and finally turn off the PC automatically after that. “Any business should ask its IT support company for this sort of service, because it’s not just environmentally friendly; it will almost certainly save you money within your first year. We have worked out that it’s reasonable to expect a saving of up to £150 per year, per machine!” That could be a cut in costs equivalent to getting completely free IT support. Courts continues, “We’d go so far as to say that it’s irresponsible for an IT support company to tell their clients that they need to keep their PCs on all the time.”

Cloudy with a chance of savings

One machine which probably does stay on 24/7 in the office is your server; but even this is becoming redundant in many business contexts- thanks to cloud computing. Cloud computing, a buzzword of 2010 and very much a reality for small businesses in 2011, is the provision of ever more business services online. The business benefit is clear: instead of buying an enterprise server and the associated hardware costs, you can simply rent access to software and services across the internet for a predictable, fixed, monthly fee per user.

Courts explains, “You’re no longer committing yourself to a £3,000-£5,000 outlay, plus warranties and then replacement after three years on hardware which has zero value after depreciation. You also won’t have to pay to maintain or run it: the latest version of the software and enterprise-grade security are all included. To give you an idea of the value here, Microsoft’s Office 365 suite gives you a 50GB Exchange email account, SharePoint and OneDrive for file storage, and many more business tools from just £5.20 per user per month.”

There are several ways in which cloud computing minimises environmental costs, too:

o             There are huge economies of scale: each cloud provider crams many clients into each data-centre, using much less hardware than would be possible if each business had their own server; indeed this is one of the ways savings can be passed on to you, the end user.

o             Secondly, you can switch users on and off as required. If you expand or contract your business, you will only ever use the resources you need – whereas a £4,000 installed server might offer capacity for 100 users, when you only ever have the need for six.

o             Since cloud services are accessed online or through a browser, you can cut your office PC expenditure, too – many small businesses find a single laptop will do for both PC and home use.

o             Finally, you may even directly cut the environmental impact of travel costs: cloud computing is one of the key drivers of home-working.

All in all, cloud services are slashing hardware purchase, manufacture and distribution bills to customers and service providers alike. Again, you pick up the savings along the way.

Extra power, virtually cost-free

For most small businesses, the cloud will offer all the answers you need; but sometimes an on-premises server is unavoidable. Perhaps you need to run industry-specific software; or manage exceptionally sensitive data. In these circumstances, the economies of scale provided by cloud computing are still available to you, using a technology called virtualisation. It simply means running multiple instances of servers and their functions on one single piece of hardware. Courts says, “We have just virtualised our own servers; reducing our hardware from eight servers to three; and ultimately we plan to go down to two. Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualisation system comes included with Windows Server 2008, so it’s not even an extra piece of software to install.”

Not only does virtualisation therefore save on the purchase (and eco-expense of manufacture) of hardware, again your exposure to depreciation is reduced.

So many small businesses and one-man-bands rely on computers as the foundation of their operations that it’s no surprise technology is the main way to reduce both business and environmental costs. “Being green is simply about using less and staying sustainable, whether that’s electricity or hardware”, says Courts. “These technologies are advancing in ways which put smart, environmentally-friendly options in the hands of even the smallest business at prices which still make sense.

This article was amended to update current figures for Office 365; the original pricing and storage was for the Business Productivity Online Suite, the precursor to Office 365