The era of Big Data has dawned, with 15,000,000,000,000,000 (quadrillion) bytes of data being generated every day, 10 times more data being stored in 2011 than in 2006 and with rates still rising, This was the key message of a recent meeting held by The Royal Academy of Engineering on The future of IT. Indispensable or unsustainable?

The half-day event, chaired by Professor Andy Hopper FREng of Cambridge Univeristy, brought together thought leaders on the sustainability of IT from across industry, government and academia,

Richard Lanyon-Hogg, IBM Chief Technology Officer for Energy Efficiency, gave an overview of the directions he thought the IT industry might be moving in in the next 10 years. By 2020, he said, we will be surfing the “Internet of everything” as more and more of our everyday devices become connected up. Human ingenuity will help us deal with this step-up in usage, innovating new ways of doing things, but as R&D costs increase there will be convergence with revenues, potentially leading to consolidation within the industry. Based on research showing that more than two thirds of people have difficulty using technological products, he also said the IT industry needs to become more inclusive, creating products for demographic groups that traditionally have not been well served.

The next speaker concentrated on the expansion in datacentre usage across the world. Despite the recession, capacity has grown by more than 56% since 2007, Liam Newcombe, co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of Romonet, told the meeting. Unlike end user devices, which are switched on and off, datacentres have a fixed energy consumption, as they are always on. Software and hardware need to work better together to allow datacentres to be fully utilised or powered down if necessary. Also, ways of dealing with demand elasticity need to be developed so efficiency savings are not lost with higher consumption.

The availability of materials was covered next by Andrew Bloodworth, Head of Science Minerals and Waste, British Geological Survey. Consumption of rare earth materials is continuing to grow and the mining industry has to deal with a range of factors: physical depletion; human factors (such as geopolitics) and environmental issues. As an industry, IT will have to do more with less and with lower grade material. More materials also need to be retrieved from the “urban mine”: currently only 30% of mobile phones are recycled, a figure which needs to be increased.

Joe Baguley, Chief Cloud Technologist at VMware, talked about user subversion of IT products. Previously, companies have viewed employees as users of their products, with IT departments in control of everything. However, increasingly the employee is in fact the consumer, who chooses to use a range of different devices and applications, out of an employer’s control. He predicted the end of the Local Area Network and the development of an empowered, secure, mobile workforce, able to access any app, on any device, anytime, anywhere, securely.

The potential for developing economies to access income streams using IT was discussed next by Dr Andrew Rice, lecturer at the Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge. He thought that computing can be used to support the aims of the UN development goals - equity and sustainability. But there are questions as to how to measure benefit, and so impact will be difficult to measure.

The final speaker of the day was Bob Crooks, Green ICT Programme Leader at DEFRA. He outlined the ways in which government is working to reduce its own carbon footprint, inter- and cross- departmentally.

Notes for editors

  1. The future of IT. Indispensable or unsustainableWas held on 2 December 2011. Speakers’ presentations are available to download:

    Richard Lanyon-Hogg, IBM Chief Technology Officer for Energy Efficiency (2.80 MB)

    Liam Newcombe, co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of Romonet (1.02 MB)

    Andrew Bloodworth, Head of Science Minerals & Waste, British Geological Survey (3.01 MB)

    Joe Baguley, Chief Cloud Technologist at VMware (3.28 MB)

    Dr Andrew Rice, lecturer at the Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge (2.35 MB)

    Bob Crooks, Green ICT Programme Leader at DEFRA (973.22 KB)
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton