Microsoft and the environment form a partnership that pivots largely on helping the software giant’s customers work efficiently while wasting less energy.

That approach translates into creating products for greener data centers and office workstations; refurbishing personal computers so they don’t end up in a landfill; and sharing management and workplace strategies with customers on reducing energy consumption. The company's internal practices are also increasingly environmentally-friendly.

Microsoft was a pioneer in the personal computing market; these days, millions of people around the world can’t imagine life without their computers or similar handheld devices.

But computers and the server farms that power the Internet are among the biggest consumers of power. As the world’s largest software company, Microsoft has made it a priority to help the IT world power down just a little bit.

Green data centers

A data center is one of the most energy-intensive work environments. It’s filled with computer servers that operate 24 hours a day, often during peak times. But without them, large companies can’t function because these servers store mission-critical information and applications.

Microsoft is helping information technology managers out by creating less power-intensive products. Windows Vista, for example, can help reduce a company’s energy use by as much as 30 percent.

Windows 7 also helps IT professionals reduce power consumption. The company’s newest operating system includes power-management diagnostics.

For example, computer professionals can control the system’s power management by using PowerCfg.exe, (a command-line power-management utility).

Microsoft Virtualization, meanwhile, allows multiple operating systems to run on a single server.

According to Microsoft, that can reduce energy use by up to 90 percent. Virtualization software is considered truly green because it reduces the amount of hardware a company needs, while also boosting the utilization rates of existing servers. In some cases, virtualization software can increase utilization from 15 percent, which is common, to as much as 80 percent.

In addition, Microsoft Unified Communications includes products such as Exchange Server and Office Communications Server that enable collaboration and limit the need for expensive travel.

Refurbished PCs

One of the areas where Microsoft has been leader is in giving discarded personal computers second lives.

That’s in part because obsolete computers are quickly becoming an environmental burden. As consumers cycle through PCs and other electronic more rapidly, there’s a growing need to curtail so-called e-waste. Some 200 million computers are jettisoned each year, according to a joint study Microsoft conducted with the Gartner Group.

In many cases, computers that are not properly recycled end up in the developing world, where their raw materials – chemicals such as cadmium and mercury -- have a resale market. That’s a practice that’s not environmentally sound.

In 2007, the computer giant launched the Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher Program. It allows certified refurbishers to purchase Microsoft’s Windows software at special prices and install it on discarded computers that might otherwise not find a new home.

The addition of new operating systems represents a big breakthrough; it proved difficult in the past to find new uses for computers that didn’t have a legitimate operating system.

Helping IT consumers become greener

Microsoft knows the needs and demands of its top customers — corporate IT managers. And it knows how to reach them. The company’s Web site is a repository for best practices in the IT field that help lower energy consumption.

For example, Microsoft has online Sustainability Calculators that help companies estimate their carbon footprint.

The company’s Web site lists the Top 10 Business Practices for Environmentally Sustainable Data Centers. These are strategies the company has been following for several years. The tips include approaches such as providing incentives to reward IT managers for the efficiency of their operations. Typically IT managers are rewarded for computer network uptime rather than power usage effectiveness. Microsoft says following tips such as this one leads to optimal use of resources as well as helping the environment.

Internal green practices at Microsoft

Microsoft practices what it preaches. The company encourages employees to carpool or use public transit to reach its headquarters and other offices. The 39,000 people who work at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., have access to a bus system Microsoft created. The company launched the system, which it says is one of the world’s largest private bus systems, to provide free express bus service during rush hour between residential neighborhoods and the Redmond campus. Microsoft aims to reduce car traffic by more than 250,000 miles per week through the bus system.

The company voluntarily publishes its carbon footprint through the Carbon Disclosure Project. And in 2007, the company pledged to reduce its carbon emissions per unit of revenue by at least 30 percent by 2012.

For more information on Microsoft and the environment, visit the environmental section of the company’s website.