EU's lead-free law will also affect global IT products

Beginning July 1, the European Union will bar import of electronic components that include lead, mercury cadmium and several other substances. The law, known as the European Directive of Restriction of Hazardous Substances, or RoHS, has vendors scrambling to meet its deadline, but it is not without implications for non-European users.

The law will have a global impact, especially as other countries adopt similar restrictions. China's version, for instance, is due to take effect next year. Since manufacturers don't want to run two assembly lines, one spewing out electronic components with lead and the other lead-free, most customers will also get lead-free IT equipment, vendors and industry consultants said.

For IT users, there is the possibility that some vendors may accelerate product end-of-life announcements, and putting RoHS-compliant parts into production systems may require testing in some cases. Although some vendors and consultants are advising users to ask suppliers about their RoHS compliance plans, the issue has not been getting much attention.

But Robert Rosen, CIO of the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and president of the IBM user group Share, sees little IT impact from RoHS for users. While there may be some "spot issues" created for IT, they'll be minor, Rosen said. The PCs he is using from Dell are RoHS compliant and there have been no issues with them. As he sees it, the effort to remove the hazardous substances is a good one. "From an environmental standpoint it's a no brainer," he said.

Similarly, Bill Morgan, CIO at Philadelphia Stock Exchange, sees RoHS compliance as "more of a problem for the computer manufacturer than for the end user like us."

The stock exchange is a heavy user of Sun Microsystems systems and because Sun offers such a wide variety of products, "we will have choices even if some older non-compliant products are discontinued by Sun," Morgan said. The newer Sun equipment purchased by the exchange is compliant with the environmental law, and he didn't see much of an issue for his company from the law.

But the RoHS will nonetheless be influential, said tech industry consultants. "If you are a large multinational, you have to watch those end of life announcements," said Debbie Cote, a principal of at PRTM Management Consultants in Waltham, Mass., which advises high-tech companies.

For instance, fault-tolerant computer maker Stratus Computer Systems, which does about a third of its business in Europe, said it expects to shortly announce an end-of-life timetable for its ft6600, an Intel-based four-way server that will apply to customers worldwide. The company had been planning the phaseout for the end of this year, but decided to move it up because of the European directive, said Denny Lane, Startus' marketing director. Conversely, he said meeting RoHS requirements has accelerated some product improvements, such as a new storage subsystem, to comply with the law.

One key issue for vendors in RoHS compliance has been switching from a lead-based alloy solder to what is becoming a widely used silver, tin and copper alloy. Although the substitute has been tested extensively and performed as well or better than lead-based solder, as an industry "we have very little field data on the solder formulation that we are using," said Dan Shea, chief technology office of Celestica in Toronto, an electronics manufacturer. Unlike lead, "we don't have 50 years of reliability data," he said.

Industry concerns about lead solder substitutes prompted the EU to allow a temporary lead exemption for high-end IT equipment, but not for PCs. If a server maker waits too long to qualify a part as RoHS compliant, the company may discover that it can't because third-party support for testing and qualification has disappeared, leaving the IT manager with a potential supply gap, Shea said.

Many products that IT users are getting are already RoHS compliance, and the major enterprise vendors, Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co., all said they would meet the law's requirements.

European customers are beginning to ask for RoHS compliance in request for proposals, said Chris Ingle, an analyst at IDC based in London. As far as vendors being compliant, "whether that's true or not we will just have to wait and see come the date," he said.

The onus of compliance to the law "is on the producers and distributors, VARS (value added resellers)," said Darr Greenhalgh, director of supply chain solutions at Arrow Electronics in Melville, N.Y. Nonetheless, he said, "part of the issue is awareness. We always recommend that anyone who is affected by this put an internal task force together to understand the impact of this regulation."

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