The Green IT dilemma

Corporate survival versus global warming: 2008 will be remembered as the year that Green IT started to be taken seriously, only to be pushed well down the priority list by the impact of the credit crunch.

Attitudes on Green IT among senior IT executives interviewed by Information Age over the year ranged from indifference and outright cynicism to measured enthusiasm, with the most passionate pleas for environmental awareness and action coming from vendors.

And even as they argued that “Green IT has moved from hype to business imperative”, there was an awareness among customers that ‘going green’ comes at a premium – an upfront cost that may be repaid relatively quickly but which is difficult to justify when cash is tight and budgets are static or in decline.

Adoption figures vary widely. A survey sponsored by Bell Micro and released in April indicated that IT managers would only adopt a Green IT strategy if they were compelled to by regulation (69%), their customers (29%) or their suppliers (14%). A rebellious 3% said nothing would prompt them to adopt a Green IT strategy. Worse, of those who had implemented a green policy, only 12% believed they had saved any energy.

More optimistic was Dell’s Green IT Barometer report released in November. It claimed almost 46% of large organisations have a Green IT strategy in place while another quarter intend to implement one within two years. But judging from feedback from Information Age readers over the course of the year, the definition of a ‘Green IT strategy’ ranges from implementing a data centre fuelled by 100% renewable energy to memos encouraging staff to print less and turn their PCs off at night.

The Effective IT Survey 2009 found that the strategy of adopting power management strategies or software had in grown only slightly from 28.9% in 2008 to 33.7%. But it topped the chart of strategies that respondents plan to adopt in the coming year, which suggests the cost saving agenda has maintained interest in Green IT.

IT as a cost saver

Examples of products that promise to save money by cutting energy requirements abound.

PC power management tools Surveyor from Verdiem and NightWatchman from 1E control PC power settings from a central console on a server, automatically shutting them down to a set schedule. Verdiem estimates that customers save $20 to $60 per PC each year, thereby cutting overall energy consumption by 5% to 15% at large organisations. Moreover, these packages provide energy metrics, allowing bolder IT departments to charge back energy costs to specific departments. The current lack of measurement capabilities, according to Dell’s study, means 62% of UK IT organisations have no incentive to reduce power consumption, while 63% don’t even report it.

“It’s not about [being] ‘green’ as much as it is about reducing costs. The green component is relevant and topical, but in the end it saves money,” explained Verdiem’s former CEO Kevin Klustner.

It is notable that Surveyor’s early customers were not green evangelists but US school districts trying to operate IT on a shoestring budget.

The multiple initiatives do add up. HSBC recently estimated that Green IT saves it $11 million annually, while it aims for a further 8% cut in the amount of energy used by IT by 2011. For a multinational financial institution, $11 million in savings is little more than a rounding error but the effort has decreased the volume of carbon dioxide that HSBC emits by 130,000 tonnes.

Data centres control

Any ‘green’ discussion on mission-critical data centres is influenced by the overriding priority to keep the processing power that underpins the operation running at any cost. But the efficiency argument applies to no lesser degree.

“Why should a green data centre be any different from a well-engineered, energy-efficient one?” asked Norman Disney & Young consulting engineer Patrick Fogarty, at Information Age’s ‘Future of the Data Centre’ conference.

The bottom line, he emphasised, is that engineering for efficiency is still the best way to cut energy usage. While it is technically possible to generate 20% of a site’s requirements using an assortment of renewable energy (such as wind, solar, biodiesel and biomass), the cost is prohibitive. Meanwhile, “if you can achieve 25% savings by increasing energy efficiency through good engineering, that dwarfs anything you can get from renewables.” The difference, he adds shrewdly, is that using renewables “ticks a political box”.

Therein lies the rub – is Green IT about saving money or the planet? That answer depends on an organisation’s stance on the environment. But context helps: the world’s use of IT and communications systems contributes 2% of global carbon emissions, roughly the same as the airline industry, according to analysts.

Green IT’s most publicised polluter, the data centre, contributes about a quarter of the industry’s emissions. By comparison, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, the livestock industry contributes 18% of global carbon emissions, with a further 9% coming from growing feed, clearing land for grazing and transporting produce.

This makes the data centre over 54 times less lethal to the environment than livestock.  

IT as an enabler

But the Green IT issue extends to both the use and manufacturer of kit. The manufacture – and the disposal – of IT infrastructure contributes significantly to global carbon emissions. But the issue can hijack the significant role IT has to play in reducing emissions in other sectors.

The Tesco supermarket chain emits 4.1 million tonnes of CO2 every year with 57% of that attributable to electricity drawn from the grid, 11% from the diesel emissions of Tesco trucks, and 25% to leaked refrigerant – “We have a lot of fridges,” observed Mike Yorwerth, Tesco’s group technology director, at London’s Green IT conference in May.

And while he readily admits the company’s data centres are anything but efficient, the Tesco IT department’s total contribution to the company’s emissions is just 4%. It is adopting virtualisation in an effort to raise the utilisation of its Wintel servers from an average of 6% to 60%, but sees far greater gains beyond the IT department.

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

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

In a similar vein, delivery firm FedEx in the US wiped 30% off its fuel bill simply by using technology to map routes so their trucks took fewer left-hand turns.

Green future?

For it to be embraced by enterprise, particularly in the economic climate of 2009, Green IT is going to have to shake its premium-price image and push cost-saving as a fundamental benefit of the technology. Compliance may or may not become a driver as UK and European Union legislation starts to bite, but measurement will remain a key factor regardless.

For example, although the capital expenditure for a ‘green’ server may be more than a comparable standard model, lifecycle-operating costs can run substantially lower and are something that should be considered during procurement.

Related Topics

Green Technology