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Tips to improve IT sustainability

With every business function being asked to look closely at their carbon footprint, we look at ways to achieve greener IT operations

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Extreme weather events and warnings from experts that keeping temperature rises below the 1.5°C limit is becoming increasingly difficult have raised public awareness of the impact of global warming.

Businesses and consumers alike are thinking more about climate change, the environment and sustainability. Mattie Yeta, chief sustainability officer at CGI, says organisations have recalibrated their strategies to match changing sustainability expectations. This, she says, shows that businesses recognise they are being observed by consumers, governments, investors and regulators while striving to achieve sustainability.

Corporate governance

Numerous regulations are coming into force that have corporate governance implications. For instance, as Jay Dietrich, research director of sustainability at Uptime Institute, points out, financial-based climate disclosure requirements – such as the European Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and other Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD)-based regulations – mandate public reporting of energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and strategies and goals for their reduction across owned, colocated and cloud IT operations.

And under the European Energy Efficiency Directive, he says datacentre operators are expected to “establish an energy management system (ISO 50001 or equivalent) that improves energy performance as measured by work delivered per unit of energy consumed”.

This means organisations running and operating datacentres need to publish an energy performance improvement plan that specifies improvement projects and reports on their progress and results.

“Understanding the environmental consequences of your infrastructure should be driving decision-making on where to manage data and who to work with in this space”
David Pugh, Digital Catapult

Beyond the figures based on compute capacity, David Pugh, head of sustainability at Digital Catapult, recommends that every IT leader should consider the degree of carbon emissions associated with their organisation’s data management and storage. This includes both internal and external digital infrastructure.

“Understanding the environmental consequences of your infrastructure should be driving decision-making on where to manage data and who to work with in this space,” he says.

The compliance opportunity

Regulations also offer businesses a chance to innovate. Carmen Ene, CEO of 3stepiIT, notes that new regulations mean organisations need to shift their perspective and look at possible growth opportunities triggered by regulatory demands.

Instead of the end goal being compliance alone, she says companies should focus on implementing solutions that improve their environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting capabilities while delivering business value, reducing their environmental impact, and giving back to the planet and society.

As an example, Ene points out that responsible use of customer data and the material assets a company owns – such as digital devices – is a regulatory requirement. She says assets need to be tightly managed by the procurement, IT and cyber security teams, alongside the compliance team.

“Tech must be sourced, ensuring no regulatory and reputational issues with the company supplying it. The devices – and the data they host – then need to be managed and tracked while in use and, crucially, after, ensuring no data is left on them and that they do not become e-waste,” says Ene.

Shane Herath, chair of the Eco-Friendly Web Alliance, also recommends that IT decision-makers ensure sustainability transcends operational aspects. “Decision-makers should actively work towards shifting the perception of sustainability from a mere operational expense to a crucial investment,” he says.

For Herath, this involves an internal culture shift, where sustainability is integrated into the core values of the organisation. “The speed of this change, resonating within enterprises and influencing consumers, will undeniably shape the future narrative of IT sustainability,” he adds.

The IT sector is also beginning to make sustainability targets a core part of product offerings and services. According to Herath, the faint green shoots indicating a shift in supplier relationships observed in 2023 should blossom into full-fledged partnerships in 2024.

“IT decision-makers should resolve to scrutinise supplier practices more thoroughly, seeking partners who not only talk about sustainability, but demonstrate genuine dedication through consistent and impactful action,” he says.

As new IT is procured, and old hardware replaced, IT leaders need to consider the full lifecycle of the products they buy and dispose of

Herath suggests the emphasis should be on fostering a network of suppliers that share a commitment to green practices. He believes collaboration with suppliers in developing and adhering to sustainability benchmarks can be a game-changer in achieving industry-wide eco-friendly standards.

Balancing sustainability with the pace of change in tech

IT does not stand still, so organisations will have a roadmap for upgrading IT hardware infrastructure. But with technology and innovation becoming increasingly powerful, CGI’s Yeta says organisations need to address sustainability issues precisely and effectively.

“Decision-makers need to be taking full advantage of this capability, using modern algorithms to reveal the hidden patterns of usage, streamline processes and prepare for the outcomes of various sustainability policies,” she says.

As new IT is procured, and old hardware replaced, IT leaders also need to consider the full lifecycle of the products they buy and dispose of. Herath says IT decision-makers should resolve to go beyond preliminary steps and adopt comprehensive strategies for managing electronic waste. This includes promoting device longevity, enhancing repairability, promoting right-to-repair and embracing modularity in design.

End user experience

Andy Powell, chief technology officer at Canterbury Christ Church University, says when IT leaders put in place green IT initiatives, they should also ensure they have a good user experience.

As an example, he says that with knowledge of a lecturer’s schedule, the university’s IT team is able to put a laptop to sleep in non-working hours to save power. But he adds: “If you know a lecture starts at 9.00am and the lecturer turns up at 8.55am and logs on, the laptop may then take 15 minutes to receive patches and antivirus definitions. That means students have to sit there for 15 minutes waiting for the lecture to start.”

To address this, the university is now using Tanium’s Converged Endpoint Management platform and wake-on-LAN capabilities to push out patches and Windows updates overnight.

As an example, in 2018, Canterbury Christ Church University replaced end-of-life HPE servers and enterprise storage with Nutanix’s hyperconverged infrastructure based on Lenovo hardware. The servers have already been running for six years, and Andy Powell, chief technology officer at the university, wants them to run for another year before they are replaced.

The hyperconverged infrastructure enabled the university to consolidate its datacentre, which reduced its environmental impact. Configured with hot/cold aisle cooling, the exhaust air is fed into a greenhouse on the side of the datacentre facility.

Herath highlights the importance of establishing partnerships with e-waste recycling facilities and incentivising responsible disposal practices. By taking bold steps in e-waste management, he says IT leaders can set an example for the entire industry.

Richard Barnes-Webb, a sustainable architecture expert at PA Consulting, proposes establishing “green tech debt” as a standard project term, in the same way that phrases such as “best practice” and “pipeline” are applied in meetings as everyday business terms. The intention, he says, is for most projects by default to have a parallel stream of work running alongside the standard functional delivery and non-functional requirements.

“What gets measured gets managed, and measurement gives your sustainability endeavour substance”
Richard Barnes-Webb, PA Consulting

Speaking about his own experience, Barnes-Webb says: “I’ve found selling sustainability as a standalone IT endeavour is not easy. There are few departments that will budget for a greener re-architecture, for example, or refactoring that does not provide any additional business benefit.”

He describes “typical” tech debt, as having “a two-birds-with-one-stone benefit” of functional remediation and bringing about sustainable change, which contributes to an organisation’s overall emissions targets.

In practice, he says addressing green tech debt may be as simple as taking the time to add tickets to the corporate issue-tracking platform, which has been configured with sustainable outcomes as one of its metrics. “This almost trojan horse approach will bring sustainability to just about any project without the need to set up a separate endeavour,” he says. “What gets measured gets managed, and measurement gives your sustainability endeavour substance.”

Green tech debt should either be added to sustainability reporting or, better still, it should be possible to see an impact on existing dashboards.

A sustainable way forward

There is likely to be a raft of new products designed to help organisations report on and manage IT sustainability. Digital Catapult’s Pugh believes this year will see be a huge amount of innovation in helping companies measure and reduce carbon emissions through the effective use of cloud services.

This is similar to the tools that have been developed to help businesses optimise infrastructure costs. The Digital Catapult Ecometer tool, for instance, is being used to measure the environmental impacts of infrastructure, to baseline carbon intensity and to better understand which business actions will effectively mitigate environmental damage.

Summing up, Uptime Institute’s Dietrich recommends that IT managers establish or revitalise their sustainability strategy and increase their engagement with sustainability staff, as continual improvement of IT operations needs to be an integral part of corporate reporting of sustainability.

Read more about sustainable IT

  • Cloud computing datacentres use large amounts of electricity, but a main sustainability benefit is the cloud’s large scale and ability to store more data.
  • Datacentre startup Deep Green confirms long-standing client Dirty Looks has committed to moving all of its workloads to its heat-reusing server farm, located in a leisure centre in Devon.

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