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Report: Linux, open source greener than Windows

Is Linux 'greener' than Windows? A report from the U.K. government finds that servers running open source software last twice as long as their Windows counterparts.

A new report from the U.K. Office of Government Commerce about Open Source Software Trials in Government, has found that servers running Linux could combat the rising problem of e-waste because they last up to twice as long as machines running Windows.

E-waste is any refuse created by discarded electronic devices and components as well as substances involved in their manufacture or use. According to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than four million tons of e-waste hit landfills each year in the U.S. alone.

The report arrived as many IT managers are contemplating a future upgrade to Windows Vista. For many, this upgrade will mean new hardware in addition to the cost of new software. The mass dumping of existing hardware that's sure to follow has many in the environmental lobby -- organizations like Greenpeace for example -- up in arms.

In February, Greenpeace Southeast Asia toxics campaigner Beau Baconguis said in a statement that "with Vista, Microsoft could effectively hasten the obsolescence of half the world's PCs. The idea that software innovation would result in more mountains of computer scrap ending up in the dumps of Asia and Africa, contaminating the environment, and affecting the health of communities, is both offensive and intolerable."

But the British report touches upon a simple fix that could also fix the environment: Use open source.

"One of the benefits frequently put forward for the use of open source software is the level of resources needed to support it. This means that for equivalent open source and Microsoft Windows systems, the open source will require less memory and a slower processor speed for the same functionality," the report said.

Industry observers quote a typical hardware refresh period for Microsoft Windows systems as three to four years; the U.K. government report cites a major unnamed U.K. manufacturing organization that quotes its hardware refresh period for Linux systems as six to eight years.

For many countries, however -- save the U.S. -- the U.K. report could be preaching to the choir. Many countries have already begun Linux migrations in earnest over the past six months. In February, at the Asia Open Source Software Symposium in Denpasar, Indonesia, it was announced that the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's Information Service Industry had quietly been a long time user of open source. The governments of Cambodia, China, India, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan also announced a switch. The Cuban government, too, made news when it declared it was ending its use of Windows in lieu of an open source deployment.

But progress on e-waste in the U.S. has been decidedly slower than in the rest of the world. A U.S. congressional caucus, called the E-Waste Working Group met twice in October 2006 to determine if e-waste could be solved by national legislation, which server vendors supported over state regulations. No formal legislation has yet been drafted, however.

Armed with the new information found in the U.K. report, Mark Ontkush, a blogger at environmentally friendly tech blog EcoGeek, said a widespread switch to Linux could prevent millions of tons of waste from going into landfills.

"Every computer not needed would prevent the use of 240 kilograms of fossil fuels," he said. "Spread that out over the 17.5 million computers that wouldn't be going obsolete every year, and Linux could deliver the world a much more sustainable future."

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