Green IT has been a popular discussion in IT circles this year, and it may once have been a nice-to-have on the IT director's list of options. According to some, however, it's now being mandated as part of a wider corporate strategy. So what is the industry doing to help IT departments reach their targets?
"I'm seeing a massive shift," says Osca St Marthe, managing consultant at systems integrator Morse. As IT departments are held more accountable for their expenditure, they can't focus purely on metrics such as uptime any more, he warns. Power and cooling, and the economic drivers behind them, are becoming more than just fashionable - they're becoming vital. "There is a personal responsibility that wasn't there before," St Marthe warns. "Regulations, coupled with rising energy costs, mean that IT departments can no longer simply sit there and do nothing."
Green enhancements touch all parts of the IT infrastructure, but for Climate Savers, it starts at the edge of the network with the boxes that employees are using. The initiative, started by Intel and Google last year, is trying to turn this part of the computing infrastructure green from the inside out.
"One focal point for us is driving the design of computers to be more efficient, and we're primarily targeting power supplies, which are very large consumers of electricity," says Allyson Klein, who manages the server technology and software strategy team within Intel's Server Platform Group, and who is a spokesperson for Climate Savers.
Today's desktop systems waste about half their energy through converting power for use by the motherboard, Klein says. Generous estimates suggest that today's systems ship with a 70% efficient power supply. "We want to raise that up to 80%, which is where Energy Star 4.0 works today," she says. By 2010, the organisation hopes to get up to 90%, and save roughly half the emissions from desktop computers.
Power supplies on servers are generally better configured, at 85% efficiency. Traditionally, data centre managers have cared more than desktop procurement managers about such things because of the power constraints in the data centre. Server virtualisation has been the latest trend to increase power efficiency, and VMWare has been the darling of the virtualisation industry.
The virtualisation story may be relatively well known, but now companies are trying to make the process more efficient. For example, business intelligence vendor SAS has an agreement with VMWare to produce technology that better enables IT customers to begin charging computing cycles back to internal business departments.
However, there are still unresolved issues around virtualisation, says Alyssa Farrell, marketing manager for sustainability solutions at SAS. "I hear from CIOs in the US and Europe that there's a hesitancy to push mission-critical production systems into a virtualised environment," she says, calling for SLAs to help soothe troubled business managers.
There are other ways to increase virtualisation efficiency, says Martin Niemer, senior product marketing manager at VMWare. The company recently extended its Distributed Resource Scheduler system to include distributed power management. This enables administrators to move virtual machines between different boxes so that they can shut down physical units during periods of low demand, such as at night.
"In the morning, if use is increasing, we can move the virtual machines from one server to the other, and give them the power again if they need it," he says.
The effectiveness of such measures can vary according to the way an IT infrastructure is deployed. Mick Walker, a green computing consultant in IBM's systems and technology group, advocates centralisation of computing resources as a way to cut power consumption.
"For organisations with a lot of deskbound function, then virtual centralised servers are the better option," he says. "You could have an environment with three to four data centres, interconnected in a way that the process is moved around, depending on the workload, the cooling, and the energy available in a given location."
Without that centralised computing resource, there will be a lot of high-powered desktops on the LAN, many of which will be left on by their users. Here, as in the server room, power monitoring and control is becoming a big issue. Companies such as 1E and Seattle-based Verdiem sell power management tools that run on desktops, turning them on and off at scheduled times and providing reports on power usage. Intel's vPro technology, embedded directly into its processors, also allows machines to be turned on across different subnets, making it possible for machines to be switched off for most of the time at night and powered up for routine tasks such as patch management.
Server-side vendors also use energy monitoring systems for their own equipment. IBM's Active Energy Manager reports real-time energy consumption across all of its server platforms, explains Walker, adding that it can be used to cap power consumption on a per-server basis. "If you're limited on electricity, you could decide that all of your online transaction processing systems have as much energy as they want, but then at 5pm in the evening you cap the energy they're allowed to use," he says.
Such technologies are useful in theory, says St Marthe. In practice, though, cultural considerations often get in the way. "Unix guys aren't turning the agents on," he says. "They're thinking 'Unix guys know best', and it's difficult to make a culture change. It's just not comfortable for them. 'I always wrote a script', they say. 'Why don't I carry on doing that?'"
Power management issues
While IT managers grapple with such power management issues at the desktop PC level and in the server room, they shouldn't ignore the third area of concern: the network. As the network comes under more pressure from tasks such as deep packet inspection, high-bandwidth switching and VoIP, savvy companies will explore power efficiency options.
These options can often come from unexpected quarters. VoIP phones powered using Power over Ethernet can be made to switch off at night, says Paul Phillips, regional director at Extreme Networks.
"We're also seeing the development of standards for network power management," he says, citing the development of energy efficient ethernet. This technology, dubbed 802.3 by the IEEE, throttles back high-speed ethernet connections when only low-speed connectivity is needed, thus saving power in the devices transmitting and receiving the data.
While it is often possible to retrofit networks with new equipment to maximise efficiency, things can be more difficult in the datacentre. Datacentre power consumption is increasing rapidly as computing requirements increase. A report to congress by the EPA last June revealed that server energy use in the data centre had doubled in the past five years. The organisation is also studying an energy star rating for data centres.
The Green Grid, a consortium of vendors in the US, has been putting together best practice power management issues for datacentre managers, and earlier this year announced a new set of data centre efficiency guidelines developed with the Distributed Management Task Force.
Some datacentre specialists are looking into innovations such as combined heat and power (CHP), in which heat from the facility is reused in other parts of the building, and perhaps even used to make cheap electricity.
"We're investigating alternative generation technology. In California we're looking at a fuel cell test for generating electricity, and also at building co-generation that let us produce power on site from less invasive utilities such as natural gas," says Pat Leonard, senior manager of strategic initiatives at datacentre operator Equinix. "We're looking at solar panels too, although they can only do so much, and there's a large concentration of power in the data centre.
Cooling, which takes up a significant percentage of a datacentre's power requirements, is traditionally handled with expensive cooling towers. Equinix is also looking into heat exchangers that use either 'grey water' (water that has already been used in other parts of a building) or ambient air to extract heat from air inside the server room.
Hard to retrofit
Again, these can be hard to retrofit, but IBM's Walker suggests other options for direct equipment cooling. "We will have a range of products where the liquid is directly taken to the chip. It's not water - it's some other non-corrosive fluid," he says. Such systems could be plugged into a blade server rack.
"We also have a heat exchanger which is like a big radiator that sits on the back of a 19-inch rack and reduces the temperature," he says, explaining that the water-cooled system can be retrofitted to existing racks. "We can do thermal imaging, identify areas that are too hot, and consequently reduce the ambient temperature."
Power consumption is at the forefront of most IT directors' minds, because 'power' and 'budget' are interchangeable, but Melissa Quinn, sustainability programmes manager at Canadian IT reseller Softchoice, urges companies to think about green IT in a wider context.
"It starts with what the manufacturer is doing, and it's also about packaging," she says. "It's about the whole lifecycle of the technology." She includes carbon consumption and materials used upstream during manufacturing in her considerations. "And then, when you're getting rid of it, where is it going?" she adds.
Softchoice recently developed a database that married the Green Technology Council's EPEAT standard with CNET's product database. EPEAT's product evaluation accounts for the supply chain inputs and outputs so that buyers can use it to help with a wider assessment of a product's environmental impact.
Casting an eye up and down the supply chain when procuring equipment is not enough when trying to minimise the environmental impact of IT. IT directors should also consider looking outside their own department within the rest of the company, says St Marthe, particularly when it comes to power consumption.
"How can IT departments share that responsibility with others?" he asks, pointing out that the people who pay the electricity bills aren't generally the same people that keep the servers running. "Is the facilities function talking to the IT department, or are they seen still as separate instances?"
That kind of integration can be taken further. While many struggle with making IT green, others are looking forward to using IT as a tool to reduce carbon emissions throughout the rest of the organisation. As the role of IT moves from cost centre to profit centre, it has the chance to serve as the boiler room for the rest of the organisation - and that creates opportunities to drive power efficiencies into everything from building control to fleet management. With enough forethought, an IT department can colour the rest of the business green too.