Green IT in action

Green might increasingly be the eco-aware IT industry’s colour of choice, but it is still also the colour of money.

Although attitudes to Green IT are not wholly cynical, the sense when IT executives get together at conferences, roundtables and other networking opportunities is that green imperatives are unlikely to trump the profit motive as the primary business driver any time soon, and that the adoption of green technology is overwhelmingly driven by the bottom line.

At May’s Green IT Conference in London, politics and public image may have topped the bill, but there was an acute awareness that the green imperative needs to be underpinned by a cost-cutting agenda, with measures designed to reduce IT’s power consumption, drive business efficiency and leverage technology at all levels to create a more eco-efficient business environment. As that suggests, ‘green’ and ‘profit’ are no longer considered mutually exclusive – a major change in perception since the early days of the ecology movement.

“It’s easy to get carried away by the green wave,” said Chris Mines, senior vice-president of industry research firm Forrester. “It can look suspiciously like a fad, a bubble that’s going to burst, but we found adoption slowly and steadily ramping up – it looks like a sustainable trend.”

He described Green IT as a “profound economic challenge” that was moving from “interesting” to “required”, and becoming “increasingly embedded in organisations”.

Mines emphasised that green IT “is not a problem you can just throw technology at – h2it’s about changing processes and behaviour”. And the subtleties – and pressing nature – of the challenge were not lost on other keynote speakers at the Green IT conference.

Government CIO John Suffolk: A call for standards

Government CIO John Suffolk, responsible for overseeing hundreds of millions of pounds of public sector procurement spend, called for green standardisation, and lashed out at a general “lack of historical learning” in the IT industry, particularly around data centre design.

“What does ‘good’ look like from a design perspective?” he asked. “If I’m an engineer building a bridge across the Thames, I’d know most of the engineering things like span, stress on steel and wind. The last thing I want to do is hand over a bag of cash to the IT industry and say ‘start from scratch’.”

Suffolk held up BT’s use of DC power and fresh air cooling to reduce data centre power consumption by 60% as an example of best practice, and challenged the industry as to why it was not being adopted as a standard.

“Let’s lock on to what BT has done, and let the BCS [British Computer Society] be the custodian of the BT design. If anyone out there says ‘I can beat 40% [consumption compared to a conventional data centre] ‘, let them be the champion. But here’s the rub: if you can’t beat it, you join it. We’re not short of best practice; we’re short of action.”

The looming likelihood of green compliance legislation, particularly a carbon tax, should be a strong motivation for corporations to examine their green strategy, says principal Forrester analyst on climate change and energy Euan Davies.

“The government is talking about reducing carbon emissions by 60% by 2050,” he said, raising the possibility of a corporate carbon tax to spur carbon-trading schemes and observing that “Utility firms already trade, and there are winds of change spreading through other industries.” The watershed moment, Davies predicted, would be an “energy crunch”.

“The last time oil neared $120 a barrel [at today’s prices] was in the 1860s, and even the Opec president [Chakib Khelil] has said he expects the price to rise to $200 a barrel.” He acknowledged that while the “focus is on the very tangible data centre”, it was only one aspect, and he urged IT managers to “identify, assess, find and execute quick wins”.

BT’s JP Rangaswami: Less hot air, more action

BT has a unique approach to IT – unique in the sense that the giant telco actually abolished its IT department altogether with the intent of creating a cultural shift within the organisation. Instead, it now has BT Design and BT Operate – the former designs, builds and implements IT and business processes, systems and networks, while the latter deploys and runs them. Moreover, the company lists its forward-looking values as ‘Inspiring’, ‘Straightforward’ and ‘Heart’, which all sounds very new-age and perfectly suited to embracing Green IT on all fronts.

Certainly the company’s data centres, some of the largest in Europe, are considered a benchmark, with features like the use of DC rather than standard AC power and fresh-air cooling that have helped cut energy usage by 60% from 1996 to 2006 – a good thing, considering how much electricity BT uses.

“BT is the largest electricity consumer in the UK, using 0.7% of total electricity produced,” acknowledges JP Rangaswami, managing director of BT Design. “Our research centre [in Adastral Park, near Ipswich] consumes the same amount of energy as Croydon.”

According to Rangaswami, “We expend an incredible amount of energy worrying about whether climate change is right or wrong, which is missing the point. We need to reduce carbon emissions – the rest is pontificating, hot air.

“I don’t think the best way is bamboozling people,” he says. “Green is about stewardship and reducing output. It’s all hot air unless you ask ‘How does this reduce my consumption?’”

The innovative application of technology can cut emissions across an organisation, not just in the data centre, Rangaswami says.

“BT probably has the largest vehicle fleet in the UK,” he observes, describing a clever initiative implemented by FedEx in the US as the sort of thing that BT would consider.

“FedEx found that if they mapped routes so their trucks took fewer left-hand turns, just by changing the routing they cut 30% off their fuel bills,” he says. “They couldn’t have done that without technology.”

One initiative BT has implemented is the concept of ‘green champions’, an environmental ‘go-to’ person in a department who encourages grassroots support for green initiatives and has the ability to make green decisions. As the green champion for BT Design, Rangaswami says this gives him considerable input into decisions involving purchasing, design and processes.

“You don’t want car park wardens because that drives dissent underground,” he cautions. “The behaviour keeps happening; you just can’t see it.”

He explains that BT also uses its considerable purchasing power to promote green imperatives down its supply chain, “encouraging suppliers to conform before we’ll be prepared to trade”.

Aside from cutting costs and saving the planet, he is emphatic that green will eventually become a “minimum requirement when people are choosing who to work for”.

Whatever the reality of its green credentials, and regardless of how much money the company is saving on its electricity bill, Rangaswami emphasises that BT hasn’t found the road an easy one. “The hard thing about being green is that it’s hard,” he concludes.

Tesco’s Mike Yorwerth: IT as a green enabler

Managing the carbon footprint of a supermarket chain the size of Tesco is a formidable task – the ubiquitous UK grocer has stores in 14 countries, including Eastern Europe and the Far East, and last year took on the mighty Wal-Mart in a bold US expansion.

Tesco’s group technology director, Mike Yorwerth, is upfront with the numbers: the supermarket chain emits 4.1 million tonnes of CO2 every year, or “twice the carbon footprint of the MOD [Ministry of Defence]”.

That figure includes electricity drawn from the grid (57%), emissions from diesel used by Tesco’s trucks (11%), and leaked refrigerant (25%) – “We have a lot of fridges,” Yorwerth notes. And those figures don’t even include the indirect emissions that are the by-products of manufacturing the goods it sells in its stores.

Yorwerth acknowledges that against the backdrop of the supermarket chain’s total emissions, “IT is only a small part of the picture, about 3% to 4%.” But he is the first to admit that the company’s data centres are anything but efficient. Like others, “Bizarrely, we heat cool air in winter.

“It was a shock to measure our data centre PUE [power usage effectiveness] and find it was 2.24 – people who know what that is say ‘My God, that’s pretty bad’,” he says. While he aims to get that number down to 2.0 next year and then hopefully to 1.8, “data centres only represent 11% of usage, or 0.5% of the company’s overall footprint”.

Much of the power Tesco consumes is used in-store for things like heating, running tills and powering appliances – with varying levels of efficiency.

“In Tesco Extra stores, there may be 20 to 30 TVs that shout ads at you. I hate them myself,” Yorwerth admits candidly. “They can be switched off at night but switching them all back on to the same channel is surprisingly difficult, especially when you have 20 to 30 remote controls.”

Tills and their printers and screens are another energy guzzler, most running 24 hours a day.

“We started trialling switching them off overnight in Thailand, which is a challenge for the guys in the operations department,” Yorwerth says. “There is a lot of fear in

IT about switching things off,” which is not helped by the perception from stores that ‘the IT guys are messing with my stuff’.” One solution is to change “from the concept of ‘always on’ to ‘always recoverable’,” he suggests.

Tesco has put aside £100 million a year to lower its carbon output, and Yorwerth sees IT as a key ‘enabler’ in the process. “The default for any Windows implementation now is virtual. You have to argue really hard if you want otherwise,” he says.

“We are centralising building management systems, running trains, trialling electric vans for Tesco Online and improving transport routing and telemetrics.”

An early success was incentive based – the company noticed a 10% increase in fuel efficiency following the introduction of a ‘best driver’ score that rewarded Tesco drivers for efficient driving.

As an enabler, Yorwerth believes that “Green IT can help drive behavioural change”. And he’s very aware of the benefits: beyond running a responsible, sustainable business.

Transport for London’s Phil Pavitt: Measure for measure

It’s not easy being green – especially if you’re an organisation like Transport for London (TfL), embroiled in the politics of government and with a huge budget of taxpayers’ money to spend responsibly. And if TfL’s group CIO Phil Pavitt gets it wrong, other IT staff across London might not even make it to work in the morning.

“Every day, we carry 12 million people above street level and 5.5 million people below street level. All of our networks are at capacity – these services use a Victorian-based system,” he says.

But Pavitt is responsible for procuring IT services that stretch well beyond TfL: he is also involved in the sourcing of IT for the Metropolitan Police, the emergency services, the London Development Agency and, increasingly, the London Olympics. “It’s quite a wide remit,” he says, with some understatement.

Within that, green initiatives take several forms. TfL’s IT department plans to roll out a thin client to every one of its 25,000 direct users and 45,000 indirect users this year, and to consolidate its 32 data centres into three by

the end of 2009. Moreover, it aims to prove how much greener it can become by benchmarking its energy usage – something much more difficult than just pulling a kW/h figure off appliance plate numbers.

“Plate numbers are almost irrelevant – interesting and no more,” Pavitt says. “We’ve measured the output, from the heavy end-user to the light end-user over a period of months, [and found] the actual measurement to be dramatically different.”

“We also began to measure what it costs for our desktops to be manufactured, and found it costs more [carbon] to manufacture a typical desktop than it does to operate it for its three-year lifecycle. Not many authorities or government departments are doing this to such a level of sophistication.”

Neither are the service providers, apparently. Pavitt claims, “Their understanding of where we are and what we need to balance these things is very poor. I think the provider service into the IT industry, particularly government IT, is very poor.”

In-house initiatives

As well as procurement TFL is working on in-house green initiatives and, like BT, had particular success with the concept of green champions.

“We were just about to move 2,500 people into a brand-new building near London Bridge, so I thought I’d try something culturally different by going from one printer per five staff to one printer for fifty. I thought there would be howls of protest, and was ready to go tongue-in-cheek and launch it as a calorie-reduction walk-to-the-printer [initiative]. But we introduced it through a champion process and sold it to the few, who sold it to the many, and it’s been one of the most universally accepted things I’ve seen.”

As a result of all these measures, Pavitt says that by 2010 the IT division will cut its current annual CO2 output of 7,632 tonnes by 80%.

But some context: TfL is a long way off being carbon neutral. The organisation as a whole runs on 430,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, with only 20% coming from lower CO2 sources.

Pavitt is the first to admit that sustainability is hard when operating a transportation system. “To run something like the Tube takes an enormous amount of power,” he says, adding that reducing that usage is “a very hard and complex technical conversation”.

“There was a headline [saying] we should reuse the heat from the Tube for other purposes – and believe me it’s quite warm down there. [But] the majority of the tunnels were built during Victorian times. So that may have been a great one-liner but it is technically very complex [to achieve].”

Green initiatives also battle against many other priorities in TfL. “As a recent arrival in government, I can tell you that price is always an issue,” Pavitt says.

Still, environmental concerns have been an issue for TfL since Queen Victoria signed a Bill of Rights for a paid hansom cab to operate up and down Pall Mall.

“I have the document on the wall in my office,” Pavitt says. “There’s a personal note she scrawled in the corner: ‘Who will be cleaning up the mess left by the horses?’”

The Met Office’s Steve Foreman: Energy by numbers

Perhaps more than any other corporate or government organisation, the Met Office is under pressure to lead by example when it comes to being green. After all, it helped come up with the figures for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the report that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for convincing the political world that climate change was occurring.

And when it comes to complying with climate change legislation, the Met Office has something of an advantage. “We have a lead time because we’re the ones behind the numbers,” smiles Steve Foreman, head of IT services and self-confessed “worn-out scientist recycled as IT manager”.

At the heart of the Met Office’s ability to predict the weather are its 600 servers and NEC SX-6 supercomputers, each capable of 16 billion calculations per second – enough to make weather predictions down to a four-kilometre area. An upgrade in 2009 will lower this to one kilometre. Besides processing power, the organisation also keeps several hundred years of climate data – around 1.8 petabytes, or “enough to store every commercial film ever shown in the UK”, explains Foreman. “But of course, climate data is much more interesting.”

When it moved to Exeter in 2003, the Met Office used the opportunity to upgrade its environmental practices, most notably via the new building itself. The award-winning design includes occupant- and light-sensitive lighting, toilets that flush with water drawn from a nearby pond and filtered through a reed bed, pipes and beams that store cold air and release it during the day, and a near encyclopaedic wall of recycling bins. “People and PCs heat the building, and we only have to turn the heating on during very cold days,” Foreman says.

IT-specific initiatives include “shared printers at a ratio of three to 100 people, with double-sided printing as default, and everybody has to choose between having a desktop or a laptop”.

Simple technology has also increased the efficiency of the organisation’s remote weather stations, and cut down on road miles. “If there was a hiccup, we used to have to send someone out to press the reset button, so we solved that by making an electronic finger that pressed the button when you phoned it up,” Foreman says.

The Met Office has also implemented successful tech recycling programmes, one of which involved sending 300 old computer systems to the meteorological service in Kenya.

As ‘the ones behind the numbers’, Foreman found that being at the forefront of climate change observation meant that it didn’t face many of the cultural challenges experienced by other organisations in ‘going green’. “It was second nature to a huge majority of our staff,” he says.

Further reading

Lean green machine – Building the environmentally-friendly desktop device

Related Topics

Green Technology