BYOD to Save the World

The business world, at least in the IT community, is abuzz with the concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Simply put, this just means employers allowing employees to use their own IT equipment (phones, computers, tablets) for work – either instead of, or supplementary to, equipment provided by the business itself.

Employees these days nearly always have their own PC of some variety, increasingly that’s a laptop. They also almost certainly have their own mobile phone, increasingly that will be a smartphone. Tablets being an “ease of use” addition to the pool, they don’t replace either of those other tools but may be used in preference in meetings or when travelling. If employees have all this kit, why provide a whole separate set for use when working?

BYOD makes good sense for these traditionally espoused reasons:

  • It saves employers from paying for equipment.
  • It allows employees to use what they like, without a work/life split.
  • With cloud services, specifically browser-based, gaining ground the device and its software are less important these days than they once were.

BYOD has a few issues though:

  • Supporting an unlimited number of different machines and a range of operating systems/versions is impractical and expensive.
  • Tracking business software licences is more awkward, especially if employees decline to allow their employers monitoring tools to be loaded onto their own equipment.
  • Security cannot be controlled except through policy or by insisting on locking-down employee’s machines into an approved configuration. Clearly, this isn’t very palatable to employees.

A traditional approach is for employers to allow employees to use their own devices, but they must provide their own support and they must use the business’s monitoring tools.

My personal view is that businesses need to re-evaluate their approach to security. Do the risks really lie in the kind of corporate espionage which current policies imply, or are the biggest risks the employees themselves and the information they carry with them from one employment to the next? I’d suggest the latter, but clearly not all businesses face the same challenges. Containerizing business data on the device is the current hot topic – keeping everything secure in the cloud, and when data is needed on a device creating an encrypted, authenticated, secured location on that device to store it in. This area is secured separately from the rest of the storage on the device, perhaps to a stronger level, and it may be possible to remotely control this storage – for instance remote deletion in the event of the device being lost or stolen. This seems a more palatable option than wholesale device storage deletion, an approach which users of the Android Exchange client might find alarming.

Having summarised what BYOD is, and the traditional pros and cons, I’ll get to my main point.

In a paper entitle “Life Cycle Assessment of a Laptop Computer and its Contribution to Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, by Anh Hoang, Weili Tseng, Shekar Viswanathan and Howard Evans of the School of Engineering and Technology, National University, San Diego, the authors state that a typcial desktop computer, with monitor, requires around 1.8 tons of raw materials and other natural resources. It requires 240kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals, and 1,500kg of water. This is similar to the materials and energy requirements for the production of a small car. They quote a study by the US Department of Energy which estimated that the production and usage of computers accounted for 2% of the total US greenhouse gas emission.

Some of these studies are now pretty old, including one from California (http://ies.lbl.gov/iespubs/57029.pdf) which contains lots of interesting figures for PCs and other equipment. Technology has improved somewhat, which should be expected to reduce environmental impact both in manufacture and use, but alongside that monitor sizes, CPU complexity and power requirements, disk sizes and communications requirements have increased significantly.

It’s safe to say that PCs are not exactly “green”.

According to Statistic Brain, themselves quoting Gartner, there were 355 million PCs sold globally in 2011 – 74% of those were bought for business purposes. If we assume a PC lasts 3 years before it needs to be replaced due to technology evolution, that implies around 1B PCs in use globally – in homes and in places of work. In fact, because businesses are likely to refresh more frequently than home users I suspect that there will be more than 1B PCs in use globally, and that at least half of them (rather than 26% of them) will be home PCs.

BYOD therefore has the potential to reduce the number of PCs in the world (excluding growth to new consumers) by at most a half, realistically maybe by a quarter. 1B PCs becomes 750M PCs. This could save 60M metric tons of fossil fuel (240kg * 250,000,000 – I believe this is around 40M barrels of oil but by all means read the sources and do your own maths) and a hell of a lot of GHG emissions. Not to mention preservation of rare materials.

Don’t forget also that at the end of their life PCs will either find their way into landfill or require expensive recycling.

Set alongside all this, the costs of support, security and licensing for BYOD equipment seems frankly inconsequential. Companies have a duty to aggressively pursue a BYOD policy. It would make sense for governments to set targets, in fact, to enforce or encourage adoption.

So next time your boss tells you you can’t use your iPad for work, you’ve got one more argument to help try to persuade him.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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