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How ITAM drives establishment of an IT Circular Economy

This article is the second in a two-part series co-authored with Tamsir Fayer, VP & CMO of Softcorner.

In part 1 of this series, we illustrated how the release of Windows 11 may lead to serviceable hardware being prematurely decommissioned early in its lifecycle, potentially within 3 years of purchase. We also discussed the impact of enforced updates to subscription software and looked at the impact of the datacentre boom driven by digital transformation on sustainability. In this part we show how IT Asset Managers can extend the life of their assets and become a leading contributor to the establishment of a sustainable circular economy within IT.

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy aims to reduce the resources taken from the planet, by reducing consumption and waste, and promoting reuse and repair. These concepts will be familiar to any IT Asset Management professional who governs processes to reclaim and reuse hardware and software assets. As such, a circular economy approach to ICT aligns with our existing processes and management systems. An example of circular economies in IT is illustrated below.

circular economy

Establishing a circular economy in IT

 

 

Processes in the green circle are inherently circular and sustainable. We aim to acquire new assets via return, reuse, or recycling/refurbishment rather than taking new resources from the environment. We prolong use through repair. We harvest unused software and hardware for reuse. And, when assets reach the end of their useful life with us, we recycle them through refurbishment, donation, resale, or recycling.

Refurbishment, donation, and resale enables second users of our former assets to reduce their own “take” from limited resources whilst recycled materials feed back into the production process – the “Take” represented by the red triangle. By keeping resources circulating for as long as possible in the green circle we reduce what we take from the Earth’s limited natural and biological resources.

That’s the theory. Every decision about hardware and software acquisition and use can be made with the mindset of reducing the “Take”. As IT Asset Managers we take pride in sweating our assets, extending useful life, applying upgrades, and so on. We’re perfectly placed to promote this new mindset in our organisations. We can defend against the software-enforced hardware obsolescence we explored in the first article in this series.

How can ITAM influence sustainable IT decisions?

ITAM teams are perfectly placed to support and drive forward sustainable IT initiatives. We have access to high quality estate-wide deployment data. We understand our software entitlements and support/maintenance coverage. We work with stakeholders responsible for making refresh and upgrade decisions every day. We understand precisely what we can and can’t do within the terms of our license agreements. We govern processes designed to maximise harvesting, reuse, and redeployment. There is no other stakeholder in an IT organisation that has the pre-existing data and processes needed to put a sustainable IT agenda into practice.

But where should we start? The good news here is that the biggest impact is to be made at the start of the asset lifecycle, which means we can make changes immediately without having to deal with technical debt and legacy system requirements. We can start by influencing purchase decisions for both hardware and software to reduce the take.

Reducing the Take

Upgrading to the latest software and choosing (or being forced) to buy software subscriptions is difficult to justify when approaching the decision with sustainability in mind. In a circular IT economy, every purchasing decision should include these five simple questions:

  • Do we need this?
  • Do we need to buy it new?
  • Are there alternatives with a lower environmental impact?
  • What is the true total cost of ownership?
  • Is it repairable/patchable?

With these simple questions we as consumers can push change and sustainability by voting with our purchase orders. At a recent sustainability event I hosted I was delighted to see that procurement teams in Europe are already building in clauses around repairability, warranty, and environmental impact. This change in purchasing behaviour will only gather pace over the coming years.

Purchasing used hardware

Modern computing hardware is vastly capable. There really is no reason – other than software-enforced obsolescence – to replace it every 3 or 5 years as perhaps we did in the past. In the case of Microsoft Windows, machines usually come with a base OEM license which is transferable along with the hardware, and this is also the case with MacOS. Furthermore, there always exists the option to install a version of Linux on used hardware. Hardware refurbishers can provide an OEM license for Windows in the same way that Dell or Lenovo provide one with a new machine. Used hardware also typically comes with a warranty – either the remaining portion of the original warranty, or a new warranty provided by the refurbisher. Users of refurbished devices will usually have the same level of access to software updates as the original owners.

Hardware repair, re-use, and recycling

The circular IT economy also requires that existing hardware is re-used, repaired, and recycled. Spare part availability and serviceability are key to ensuring that your used hardware purchase is a sustainable purchase. Many hardware manufacturers have certified refurbished lines, and models marketed specifically as having a higher content of recycled materials. Sites such as iFixIt regularly review and rate hardware for repairability. And there is a growing movement led by companies such as Framework & Fairphone to provide hardware which is inherently repairable and upgradeable. Framework’s new laptop is the first to receive a perfect 10 score on iFixIt’s repairability index.

According to iFixIt, of the mainstream suppliers HP lead the way in repairability, and they reserve their lowest scores for Apple. It’s fair to say that the current poor state of hardware repairability has been driven by Apple’s marketing of highly integrated Macbooks and iMacs. These devices contributed directly to Intel creating the Ultrabook specification which started PC manufacturers on the slippery slope to unrepairability. Remember the infamous Apple vs PC “I’m a Mac” advertising campaign? Just 15 years ago, business laptops were highly modular & repairable, because businesses demanded it. It’s time we started demanding that of our suppliers again, and that includes Microsoft & Apple. Apple do deserve some credit for opening a new repair programme for end users wishing to fix their own devices, but currently this only applies to the very latest iPhone and Apple Silicon (M1) Macs. This does nothing to address access to parts and diagnostics for the devices most likely to benefit from end-user and 3rd party repair.

However, purchasing repairable, high-quality hardware is nothing if we’re not able to run supported software on it for many years to come. The key to reducing software-enforced hardware obsolescence is buying supported software, and often the source for this is the secondary used software market.

Purchasing used software

It is legal within the EU for used perpetual software licenses to be bought and sold, providing the software was originally purchased and used within the EU. This enables recycling/reselling and reuse of software, critical steps in the circular IT economy.

Even with the shift to SaaS it is still possible to buy perpetual licenses for most core business software. Where perpetual licenses are no longer available from the manufacturer these may be obtained from secondary software marketplaces such as . Furthermore, within the EU, consumer protection laws oblige software publishers to fix inherent faults in their software. Work is underway in the French parliament to require software publishers to decouple security updates from functional updates, and for those security updates to be provided for a longer period of time. This will extend the useful life of software and reduce the impact of software-enforced obsolescence on hardware.

Reducing the environmental cost of cloud computing

In part 1 of this series we highlighted how the switch to cloud infrastructure and software is driving a datacentre building boom and how this has a considerable environmental impact. We must also note that on-premises datacentres also consume resources, and typically they are around 6 times less efficient than hyperscale cloud datacentres. This justifies the work we as IT Asset Managers already do to minimise on-premises waste. To meet our sustainability goals, it is vital that we apply that same rigour to the management of IaaS & SaaS deployments. We know that around 30% of all SaaS applications are over-provisioned, and that wastes resources in cloud datacentres. The same applies to IaaS. For example, switching off non-production systems outside of working hours cuts energy consumption by over 2/3rds, assuming an 8-hour working day. Every unused subscription we deprovision and instance we switch off results in an immediate decrease in power consumption. Imagine the impact if this were aggregated worldwide.

Remarketing software and hardware

The reality for many organisations is that they’re now fully committed to cloud migration for both infrastructure and software. This was accelerated by COVID-19 and the move to remote working. Even in this scenario the ITAM team can still drive sustainable IT operations. Hardware can be refurbished and remarketed, and that hardware will be purchased by another organisation instead of buying new, reducing the “take” and keeping the circular economy running.

The same applies to software. Selling redundant perpetual licenses via marketplaces such as Softcorner provides the licensee with revenue, reduces costs for the buyer, and reduces the reliance on cloud datacenters. That’s a win-win-win, meeting both financial and sustainability goals. Having this alternative also enables software purchasers to break their reliance on cloud software subscriptions which are responsible for driving software-enforced hardware obsolescence.

Conclusion

We as IT Asset Managers have an opportunity to drive the sustainability agenda in our organisations by leveraging our holistic, data-derived view of the current IT estate. To make the biggest and most immediate impact we should work towards supporting a circular economy with IT, focusing particularly on reducing purchases of net-new hardware and software. We need to ensure that our policies and processes enable used hardware and software to be acquired and deployed securely. Similarly, when assets reach end-of-life with us we must facilitate their safe disposal back into the circular technology economy outside of our organisations – by making used software available to markets such as Softcorner and sending hardware for refurbishment or donation. Every asset we manage in this way helps address the climate emergency.

 

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