The green imperative

Few business leaders would today question the business logic behind becoming more energy efficient – rocketing energy bills have seen to that. But while data centre operations have been earmarked as chief suspect in the fight against inefficiency, there is widespread confusion about best strategies for reining in data centre energy consumption.

For years, business leaders have been willing to invest heavily in data centre infrastructure, recognising technology’s innate ability to drive business growth and streamline operations. But the focus has been on delivering ‘bang per buck’ “without due regard to any other issue”, laments Rakesh Kumar, an analyst with IT advisory group Gartner.

That narrow-mindedness has to change, he says. Kumar argues that adopting environmentally friendly practices in the data centre will become a business-critical issue. “Not only can data centres become green, I think they must become green. It would be a very foolish CIO who did not take the issue seriously,” says Kumar.

Nevertheless, while some business leaders have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of corporate social responsibility (CSR), many have failed to appreciate the stringent changes that such a policy will demand within the data centre, says Neil Rasmussen, chief technology officer of data centre equipment manufacturer APC. “We get calls from people who just saw their CEO on TV, making a 20% carbon-reduction commitment. A couple of days later, it’s followed by a memo from the guys in the data centre, asking ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

And while the IT practitioners may initially struggle to meet a CEO’s populist agenda, with some careful planning they begin to realise that an energy efficient data centre is both good for business and the environment. “I don’t actually like separating the environmental benefits from the business benefits because they coincide most of the time,” says Mike Newens, global property developer at mobile operator Vodafone.

Best practice

Vodafone is certainly one company that has made bold public commitments, acknowledging its environmental responsibilities. It plans to reduce its energy consumption by 40% by 2011 – given that 6% of its total energy bill goes on powering operations in its data centres, this is a key area of consideration for the company.

To become more efficient, Vodafone has embarked on a wide-ranging server and data centre consolidation programme, shifting operations from five UK sites to two smaller, state-of-the-art facilities. “One of the issues with data centres, historically, has been that the servers and the computers within them are not fully loaded,” says Newens. Much of the energy efficiency gains that can be made within the data centre are best realised when the systems are operating at close to peak capacity.

Managed services provider Smartbunker has taken a different approach towards building an environmentally-friendly data centre. It claims to have built the first ‘zero carbon energy’ data centre – a claim predicated on its use of electricity generated from 100% renewable sources. Business leaders have to recognise that “there is no such thing as a green data centre”, argues Smartbunker’s managing director, Kelly Smith: data centres consume vast quantities of electricity and that is never good for the environment. “What you can do however, is to take strident steps in how you power your data centre and how you have the equipment in it configured for energy efficiency to reduce your impact on the environment.”

Despite the presence of some early adopters of energy efficient practices, many UK businesses have failed to implement even basic strategies. A recent study of 100 UK enterprises by software management tool maker 1E, found that just 3% of IT managers cited environmental issues as their priority when making IT purchasing decisions. Furthermore, two-thirds had no policy for shutting down PCs overnight or at the weekend.

A separate study conducted by 1E in conjunction with the National Energy Foundation, found that 1.7 million corporate PCs are routinely left on by UK companies when not in use. This amounts to 1.5kiloWatt hours of electricity – enough to generate around 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Put in to context, carbon offsetting company Climate Care estimates that a return flight from London to New York only produces 1.56 tonnes of CO2.

With governments having made explicit commitments to cap carbon emissions, the reluctance of businesses to take a lead in introducing energy efficient practices bodes ill. “It’s up to business to deliver sustainable business,” says Vodafone’s Newens. “I think being responsible is a key part of the privilege of being in business and serving customers.” But unless business leaders embrace that challenge, the likelihood of unwelcome interference by legislators looms large.

Twisting a few arms

Technology vendors have a vital role in encouraging customers to go green, says Gartner’s Kumar. Vendors can make it easier for buyers to identify energy-efficient equipment by agreeing common international standards, he adds. “We need to have a well known, collective universal weighting system like the energy star system we have on our fridges and freezers because that means we are talking the same language.”

However, establishing such a common set of standards will be difficult: vendors may be unwilling to sign up for a scheme that could make their products look less green than a competitor’s. “To get there requires collaboration among vendors that have a vested interest to beat each other,” says Kumar.

Without such agreement, the unsavoury prospect of government intervention looks more likely. “I don’t see regulation as either practical or possible. To be devised and be effective it would just be a constraint upon innovation,” comments Vodafone’s Newens.

Think tank, the Market Transformation Programme (MTP), has been advising government on issues of sustainable energy use. It is currently engaged with the European Commission Joint Research Centre and several key industry groups, in developing a code of conduct for data centre operations. The aim is to produce a voluntary set of best practice guidelines, which would help minimise energy consumption in power-hungry data centres. So far, regulators have been willing to countenance voluntary schemes, recognising the benefits of a light regulatory touch, says Robin Murray from MTP. But make no mistake: if industry fails to take up the batten, governments will intervene.

And regardless of Newens’ reservations, some legislation is already in place, and there are growing indications that governments are keen to strengthen these provisions. For example, the UK Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has been largely ignored since its introduction in 2002.

But support for carbon trading is increasing; the European Union is now also promoting an ETS; a 2007 energy White Paper called for the introduction of mandatory emission trading to cut carbon emissions from “large commercial and public sector organisations”.

Nevertheless carbon trading remains a divisive issue. While it has won favour among governments, critics argue that many schemes have been badly designed and poorly received – they point to the apparent indifference of many business leaders who could otherwise be expected to have profited from existing schemes.

Whether energy efficiency within the data centre is achieved by persuasion or compulsion, business leaders can expect to rethink how they fuel these corporate engine rooms. One of the biggest challenges they face is how to achieve improvements: there is no shortage of suggested approaches, and executives will be mindful that they not only need to choose an effective strategy, but one that will fit with any regulation coming down the line.

Further reading

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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