Business backing is vital to realise green IT savings

Although IT directors may be getting sick of all the noise around green IT, it is clear that the hype is way ahead of the reality for most ­organisations.

Although IT directors may be getting sick of all the noise around green IT, it is clear that the hype is way ahead of the reality for most ­organisations.

But that is not to say that environmental issues are not steadily rising up the agenda at the highest levels of the business.

Euan Davis, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, says, "Corporate social responsibility used to be for tree-huggers, but now when people talk about it, it is in terms of energy usage and cost savings, so it has morphed into concerns around environmental management."

Green pressures

In Davis' view, there are three key categories into which most organisations fall in relation to this. The first comprises those that have been required to explore the issue as a result of legislation. For example, since January 2005, heavy industry sectors such as electricity generation and mineral processing have been legally required to monitor and report on their greenhouse gas emissions and to participate in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme.

This narrow scope is scheduled to broaden by 2020 as a result of the UK government's Carbon Reduction Commitment programme, which is intended to make emissions trading mandatory for all large commercial and public sector organisations.

The second group comprises those companies that are being forced to go green because of pressure "from the ground-up", which includes customers, suppliers, personnel and, increasingly, prospective staff, particularly young graduates.

The third category relates to those firms, particularly in the retail sector, that want to be seen as green to boost their brand value - although there is often a big gap between the PR and the reality.

Simon Mingay, research vice-president at analyst firm Gartner, says there is also a fourth category.

"Some senior managers are starting to recognise both the strategic risk and potential opportunities that climate change poses to both the business and the wider economy. Therefore, they are making green announcements way before the rest of the organisation is in any shape to do anything about it and so are acting as a catalyst for change," he says.

Split focus within businesses

Mingay says this approach can lead to a "disconnect" between the top of the organisation and IT directors, who are generally more concerned with keeping systems running and saving money.

He says the same discrepancy in attitude also exists between different vertical markets, where there are huge differences in the speed and depth of action being taken. So although financial services, retail, telecoms and high-tech industries are moving quickly, the public sector, for one, has to date been very slow to go green.

Despite issuing requests for proposals mandating green technology, Mingay says that in terms of materially changing operations, they have "done virtually nothing" - although he expects this to change during 2008 because of political pressure and because of the tentative emergence of programmes focused primarily on saving energy.

"If you look at what is happening in the market now, people are predominantly focusing on saving money and if that means they can make a song and dance about saving CO2 and energy, great.

"Having said that, some organisations do really get it and are keen to cut CO2 even if they have to spend money doing it, but they are in the minority," says Mingay.

Nonetheless, he expects this situation to change over the coming years, not least as new climate change prevention legislation starts to emerge.

"This problem is not going to go away and it is only going to become a more serious and substantial challenge," says Mingay.

Few IT directors today are aware of how much energy their datacentres consume, because procurement is usually dealt with by a central body, such as facilities management, and power and cooling requirements tend not to be monitored. But Roy Illsley, senior research analyst at Butler Group, says the situation is likely to become more pressing.

IT's growing carbon footprint

The IT and communications industry generates about 2% of global CO2 emissions, which puts it on a par with aviation, according to Gartner, with datacentres accounting for a rapidly growing 23% of this. PCs and monitors, meanwhile, are responsible for 40% of emissions, although growth is not as swift.

As demand for oil keeps growing and supplies start to dwindle, energy bills will continue to rise, and taking action will become an increasing priority. At the very least, says Illsley, it is likely to lead to an increased emphasis on remote or home working because of rising travel costs.

So what can IT departments do about all this and what role do they have to play?

On the one hand, says Davis, they can go for "quick wins". These include simple measures such as encouraging staff to unplug mobile phone chargers or other equipment when not in use, and IT departments can look at power-saving technology, such as 1E's Nightwatchman agent-based system.

This makes pre-timed overnight checks to establish which PCs are still running, before shutting them down safely or generating exception reports so that suitable action can be taken at a later date.

Another option is to use virtualisation software. Illsley says that desktop virtualisation systems, which reside on a back-end server but provide each user with a personalised image of their desktop, can generate power savings of £78,000 a year for every 1,000 PCs. Consolidating 250 dual-core servers down to 25 using virtualisation software can provide power and cooling savings of about £140,000.

A holistic approach

Although measures to tackle energy use in the datacentre are worthy activities, Mingay says the datacentre is only part of the problem.

To tackle the issue of environmental sustainability effectively, IT departments need to consider more than how much energy is going through the electricity meter on the wall of the datacentre.

To go beyond mere "green-washing", it is important to look at two other key areas in terms of energy efficiency, says Mingay. The first relates to the energy consumed during the lifecycle of equipment, which ranges from the use of raw materials in the production process to disposal at end of life.

In IT only about 20% of total energy use occurs when equipment is turned on, which is where eco-labels and procurement standards come in, such as the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, whereby products are registered as conforming with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 1680-defined environmental criteria.

Another consideration here, says Mingay, is to simply "use less stuff" where possible.

The second area where IT has a role to play, is in using technology to improve the energy-efficiency of the wider business. A key concept here is de-materialisation, or digitising data to reduce the consumption of material resources. A classic example of de-materialisation is the music world's move from CD to MP3 and digital downloads.

In the business arena this might include banks no longer sending paper statements to customers, while providing a suitable infrastructure to ensure that they do not just print them off themselves, thus simply shifting the carbon burden.

Other options include introducing collaboration and videoconferencing systems to reduce the need for business-related travel.

Sun Microsystems, for example, has saved "significant" amounts of money by introducing a policy whereby 65% of its employees work flexibly. This means that they work from home for three days a week and hotdesk at the office for the rest of the time, facilitated by tools such as teleconferencing.

IT can also be used to optimise practices in areas such as supply chain management, logistics operations and manufacturing processes, while at the same time reducing the use of resources such as packaging.

For this to take place it is crucial that business managers at the highest level adopt a strategic, co-ordinated approach to embed green policies into the organisational culture. If CIOs are not given the support of the business, their efforts are likely to remain fragmented and limited in scope and impact.

Mingay says, "If the business does not get it, there is only a limited amount that CIOs can do, but it is worth bearing in mind that they are just as capable as anyone else of bringing the environmental agenda to attention and of persuading peers of the strategic risks and opportunities that climate change presents."




This was last published in December 2007

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