The business of being green

In an unlikely turn of events, it has taken a global hardware manufacturer to voice the unfashionable truth about that most fashionable of subjects – the so-called greening of IT: “We only do this for two reasons: we do it because it saves us money or it makes us money. We’re not doing it because it’s ‘green’; that’s up to our shareholders. Our job is to run a business successfully.”

Richard Barrington, head of corporate affairs and public policy at Sun Microsystems UK and Ireland, may have surprised delegates at the Effective IT 2007 Summit with his candour, but his view of environmentalism is necessarily pragmatic: climate change poses both a threat and an opportunity to the IT community.

For many IT professionals, the discussions of carbon footprints, scarcity of resources and renewable energy can seem alien concepts, but the need to get up to speed is paramount, says Barrington.

Power struggles

For businesses, the impact of the global environmental problem is already being felt through sky-rocketing energy bills. The Carbon Trust estimates that 30% of energy bills for businesses are IT related, with IT estates globally producing a billion tonnes of CO2 a year – more, Barrington noted, than the aviation industry.

At this rate, IT energy will exceed the cost of the technology within the data centre by around 2010-2015, Barrington warns: “So if you don’t start taking it seriously, the energy manager in your organisation is going to become more important than you”.

But it is not just the issue of energy that concerns the IT community. Speaking as a hardware manufacturer, Barrington was quick to stress the problem of dwindling raw materials. To date, the global population has thrown away around 300 million computers with a further billion currently in existence, many of which are doomed to the scrapheap at some point over the next few years. Over a life time, Barrington told delegates, “each of us throws away the equivalent of 3.3 tonnes of electronic waste.” And that, he added, “does not include your electric toothbrushes”.

Like toothbrushes, however, much of IT hardware has become ‘commoditised’, meaning consumers expect it to be readily available and, more importantly, cheap. This attitude, warned Barrington, is not sustainable. If people in the emerging economies consumed goods at the same rate as those in the US, we would need another six planets to supply the natural resources.

In order to combat this over-consumption, recycling has to become routine, says Barrington; energy consumption has to be reduced, and the processes it serves made more efficient. If business leaders do not lead this charge, regulators will, he adds.

Already, a potent mixture of risk and a raft of new regulation – including the Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances in electric equipment directive (RoHS) and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive (WEEE) – is impacting businesses, and more regulation could follow.

Furthermore, as consumers become more attuned to environmental concerns, failure to fall into line could have implications far more damaging than a perfunctory slap on the wrist, argued Barrington. So far this year, for example, the UK’s Environment Agency has fined four companies more than £750,000 each for failing to comply with regulations surrounding carbon emissions, all of whom are named and shamed on the agency’s website. “The bottom line cost,” Barrington cautioned, “is reputational risk.”

Richard Barrington
Sun Microsystems


New hope

So is it all doom and gloom for the IT community from hereon in? Not if we embrace the change, says Barrington. Quoting from the controversial Stern Report, published in October 2006, Barrington argued that the business community has a “£500 billion a year opportunity” in the form of new products, new services, new markets, and improved brand reputation, if it embraces the green agenda today. “We have to innovate,” he told delegates, “and focus on R&D to produce low carbon technologies.”

There are already existing technologies that can help companies become more ‘green’. Virtualisation may allow businesses to optimise their resources, while simultaneously making them more flexible and responsive. Thin clients offer a genuine alternative to the proliferation of desktop PCs, using fewer materials to build and consuming less power. Using technologies such as RFID and complex event processing to optimise supply chains offers another way to reduce an organisation’s carbon footprint, increase its overall efficiency, and improve customer service.

In this way, Barrington concluded, the principles of being green are in many instances synonymous with cost savings, efficiency and improved customer service, all of which have a favourable impact on an organisation’s revenues.

IT directors are ideally placed to drive the issue within the enterprise, he adds. “This is not about being green. If you’re going to sell this back into the organisation it’s about saving money.”

Such sentiments may not be in the cuddly spirit so often associated with environmentalism, but this pragmatic approach might prove more effective.

Effective IT breakout: Trouble at the core

As one delegate at the Effective IT 2007 Summit – an infrastructure director at a financial services company – explained, data centres should be way down the corporate agenda at his company, having only recently moved into a newly built facility. Unfortunately, that new facility is already full, and now he, like many others, faces the unwelcome task of looking for new sites.

Several delegates concurred: finding suitable locations for a data centre is becoming more challenging. One delegate from a Dutch bank spoke of the challenges his organisation faced when their data centre reached full capacity. There were a number of options, he says: moving to premises outside of the M25 corridor; expanding the existing site; or building entirely from scratch. The difficulty with the last option, he explains, was that it would take too long. “The business set the timescale for how quickly the IT department needed to implement this,” he says.

Using co-location or managed services can also be a viable solution for some. However, this is not the low-cost alternative it once was; the rock-bottom prices being offered have inched ever-higher, as demand has latently begun to pick up. And the increase in price doesn’t look likely to slow any time soon: A report by telecoms consultancy BroadGroup predicts that the UK price for co-location will double by 2010.

Further costs are being piled on data centre operations by rocketing energy prices. Alarmingly, these costs remain ‘invisible’ to the business, reported one delegate. So while he was able to accurately calculate how much his company paid for office space – around £12,000 per desk per year – data centre costs were spread across multiple lines of business, so no accurate record was made.

Without knowing how much an inner-London data centre might cost to run, it is hard to make a persuasive argument to move. Alternative locations may be cheaper, they may have the necessary infrastructure in terms of power and networks, but few large businesses have looked outside the M25 boundary to site data centres.

Many business leaders intuitively feel comfortable having data centres close at hand; others worry that latency in data transmission limits how far applications can be hosted from their users. However, as one delegate pointed out, very few applications require nanosecond responses, meaning that latency issues can be overblown.

That suggestion was rebuffed by one delegate from a financial services institution. He had the experience of working for a company that had moved its data centre 25 miles away from its headquarters, believing that the latency issue had been cracked. However, the savings generated from the move were soon wiped out, as a repeater station had to be built to rescue application performance. Like many of the issues facing today’s data centre, perfect solutions are in short supply.

Ian Cowley

Ian Cowley is the managing director of printer cartridge company By taking a systematic trial and improvement approach, Cowley and marketing director Sean Blanks have created a Sunday...

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