The green sensibility has been on the march for many years, but as far as the IT industry has been concerned the debate has focused mainly on the concept of the green datacentre. But increasingly attention is shifting to the role of the software industry in enabling green-savvy organisations to put their own houses in order.
Some cynics have suggested that the global economic crisis has re-focused corporate attention onto short term survival rather than long term global sustainability. But a recent announcement by WalMart, the world's largest retailer, has blown open the market for green software applications and tools.
Walmart is launching a Sustainability Index to disclose the environmental impact of the products it sells. To that end, it will demand that its 100,000 suppliers and partners track the carbon emissions and water use of their goods. In other words, if you want to do business with WalMart, you'll need to provide environmental impact data. That will oblige WalMart to invest in applications and tools to produce this data, and in the process open up a huge global commercial opportunity for the software industry.
"We want to spur the development of a common database that will allow the consortium to collect and analyse the knowledge of the global supply chain," explains Mike Duke, CEO of WalMart. "The ultimate step of the Index is to translate the information stored in the database into a simple tool that informs consumers about the sustainability of products. This will provide customers with the transparency into the quality and history of products that they don't have today. It will help put them in control and consume in a more sustainable way.
"The Index will drive higher quality and lower costs. It will mean more innovative products that lower carbon output, that promote clean air and water and that create a more transparent and responsible supply chain," he adds."Walmart has provided the initial funding for this Sustainability Index and we invite all retailers and suppliers to contribute. We will also partner with one or more leading technology companies to create an open platform that will power the Index."
There are already examples of firms such as SAS Institute positioning their software as an enabling technology for organisations to support their own sustainability drives.
One such organisation is the University of North Carolina (UNC) which aims to cut all net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. With that goal established by the Chancellor, the immediate challenge became understanding what the current situation was. The man charged with coming to terms with this was Daniel Arneman, who had just received his PhD in physiology. He says: "This new challenge lets me rediscover my passion for environmental stewardship and sustainability."
The UNC community is made up of 28,567 students, 3,450 faculty and 8,632 staff. It is sited on 729 acres with 17.5 million square feet of built environment. It also has expansion plans. To analyse this vast estate, the University used JMP statistical discovery software from SAS in order to be able to visualise five or six years of greenhouse gas data and manipulate it.
"It allows me to really explore the data, and if I'm curious about a certain pattern or question, I can ask that question of myself pretty quickly. Things just become more immediately obvious," says Arneman."We use the SAS software pretty widely for a range of things. We are able to connect it to our databases used to track greenhouse gas emissions. We can also use it to connect to our database of buildings energy use. It's a vast amount of data. What do you do with a million rows of data?
"The Chancellor had signed a commitment before we had any sense of how large an issue it was. We needed to establish our greenhouse gas inventory and what the sources of greenhouse gas were. What we found was the emissions were 5,000 metric tons per year. That's a lot compared to other universities. We have a lot of work to do to achieve zero."
But while such software can be turned to useful ends, there are green-specific capabilities that a user such as UNC still seeks from suppliers. "Software firms can offer organisations a window into their energy consumption. But I'm still looking for the piece of software that shows not only great analytical ability, but also understanding," suggests Arneman. "You can produce dashboards and 3D models, but at the end of they day will this help organisations to understand why and where the carbon emissions are occurring. What I see at the moment is a lot of flashy dashboards.
"I am interested in modelling building energy use. If you could predict how much heat the buildings would need in a single day it would help with our infrastructure planning," he adds. "Flexibility is important. Every organisation's needs will be different. If you're going to measure your natural gas usage in therms or in cubic feet, then you need software to do both. Most organisations probably don't even have one person dedicated to carbon accounts so ease of use and flexibility is important."
That's quite of an issue for software firms, reckons Mikko Valtonenm, managing director of sustainability management specialist firm 2future, an Oracle partner. "Who buys this sort of software? We struggle with this every day," he says. "It's not always the CIO's office. One of our clients has its own sustainability director who has a budget of her own. A lot of companies increasingly have a sustainability office run by executives, but they sit underneath someone else."
But it's clear that there is a market for green software, driven both by legislative demand and desire to clean up their act by companies. "We are seeing bigger companies like SAP coming into this space," says Valtonenm, who argues that green capabilities are a good selling point. "Everyone wants to buy from a 'good' company. No-one wants to buy from companies which are destroying the rain forest. Software firms are able to help track your own capabilities."
That said, it's important for customers to look at what they're getting when they buy green software. "What is important is not so much the technology but the experience and knowing how to combine that with sustainability practices," he says. "People get excited about carbon footprints, but sustainability is about so much more than carbon. It really doesn't make sense for companies to buy solutions that are only about carbon. That market will not be about standalone software for energy or carbon or water, but a wider overall holistic approach. To that extent, the likes of Oracle and SAP can be major players."
For its part, SAP has been making all the right noises - and putting its Euros where its corporate mouth is. SAP's customers, according to SAP, produce 1/6 of the world's carbon emissions. In March, SAP announced plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions down to its year-2000 levels by the year 2020, a 49% reduction from its 2007 baseline measurement. As of May, it could say that it had reduced its total corporate carbon footprint by 6.7% in 2008 compared to 2007.
SAP's goal, as articulated by incoming CEO Leo Apotheker, is to make every relevant business process sustainable. To that end, he has appointed Peter Graf as its first sustainability officer and, perhaps more significantly, as the head of its new Sustainability Solutions business division. This in turn followed the acquisition of carbon management software specialists Clear Standards.
Graf insists he has a clear idea of what customers need from green software. "Most companies have preliminary sustainability initiatives under way, but customers, employees, governments and shareholders continue to ask for greater transparency," he suggests. "Moving from a series of ad-hoc activities and a maze of reporting frameworks to a co-ordinated, transparent and auditable sustainability strategy. Executives need a single solution to holistically manage environmental, social and economic risks and opportunities.
"They need to increase profitability while enabling sustainability reporting that provides auditable and assured reporting for both regulatory and voluntary KPIs and benchmarking and analytics that can compare internal and external data and support what-if analysis and projections."
But even as the traditional software firms get their green policies and product development in place, an alternative proposition is being touted by the Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors. According to research conducted by consultancy Greenspace, commissioned by SaaS firm NetSuite, the average NetSuite customer saves more than $61 million in energy bills per year through shared datacentre resources, savings which translate to nearly 595 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually or the equivalent of nearly 423,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Perhaps then the answer lies not with software itself, but with its deployment method.