IT Sustainability Think Tank: Collaborating with consultancies to go green

It takes a village to build a credible and robust IT sustainability strategy, so who should enterprises be collaborating with to make their green IT goals a reality?

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

It is doubtful that ICT will ever meet this criterion, as the use of energy to mine, process, manufacture, assemble and transport ICT devices is considerable – and that is before its use phase is even considered.

There is also the use of rare earth minerals, whose name indicates that they may not be as sustainable as we would like them to be. On the flipside, there can be no doubt that ICT in general does make things more efficient, and we know that the use of technology can help to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere.

Therefore, green IT has two parts – the first is the reduction of materials and energy used in the ICT product and services, and the second is the use of the product and services to reduce emissions elsewhere.

Despite green IT being on the agenda for the past 10 years or so, there are precious few consultancies that provide true green IT services. The drive has been mostly “cloudification” – the transfer of applications into the cloud and accessed via the internet.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that cloud and network energy use has risen significantly without a significant corresponding decrease in on-premise server room or datacentres. The reason for this is that organisations like to keep some services in-house. Moving to the cloud therefore does not remove the need for an in-house facility, so all the blab about energy savings from cloud providers is perhaps greenwashing?

A true green IT consultancy would conduct an end-to-end review of an organisation’s entire ICT estate, spanning devices, networks, the server room or datacentres, but also the policies, processes and procedures that provide the “service wrap” around the delivery of ICT services in line with business objectives.

From our own observations, we see huge potential for change in policy, processes and procedures that are from the late 20th century to really leverage the opportunities that can arise from green IT in the 21st century.

So, for help and advice, you really first need to ask yourself difficult questions: How radical are we willing to be? How will we measure success? How can we meet the organisation’s net-zero agenda? How can we meet the country’s net-zero agenda? Where can we get funding? Do we have the buy-in of senior management? Who do we need as a partner and do they have the right skills?

Greenwashing is a process whereby companies give false or misleading information about their products or services being environmentally sound. This can include “hidden” trade-offs, such as labelling a product to make it sound eco-friendly or greener.

Unfortunately, an enormous amount of greenwashing originates from the technology companies, which means it is important that CIOs undertake some research or ask around to find out whether an “environmentally friendly claim” is all it is stacked up to be.

In my opinion, the first thing to do is to undertake some green IT fundamentals training, and this should be from the top down. Get the board or senior management team on board, followed by the department heads and then the rest of the staff.

The training course should provide a plan of how to integrate departments and get them working together towards the company’s green goals. It may mean that longstanding policies, processes and procedures need to change, and – in some cases – the actual business model may no longer be fit for purpose and will need a radical overhaul.

This change should not be taken lightly, and will probably mean a massive transformation project. A good starting point is the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency), which contains 160 best practices relating to datacentre energy efficiency, but in practice cover strategic and cultural change objectives as well as energy efficiency and sustainability.

There is also excellent reference material available from standardisation development organisations (SDOs) such as the ISO, BSI and CEN/CENELEC covering the EN 50600 and ISO/IEC 30134 series of Data Centre Design, Build, Operate and KPIs.

While all of these appear to be datacentre-related, it is important. In whatever form the datacentre takes – be it a cloud, enterprise or server room – it is at the heart of your business and needs good care and attention

Sustainability goals

So, what should an enterprise’s ICT sustainability goals actually be? Every business will have its own views on this, and a good ICT sustainability consultant should be able to draw them out from the company’s senior management team and staff, because there will be a wealth of good ideas in the wider company.

However, here are the top three places to get to work on this:

Review procurement: Procurement processes nearly always focus on the price at that time, and do not take into account the operational costs, meaning the total cost of ownership (TCO) rarely covers the actual energy costs of providing the service. So organisations should ask about the actual energy use of a product during its operational lifetime.

Think about an organisational carbon budget: All projects should include the cost of both embodied and operational carbon. It may be that a more expensive product has lower embodied carbon and uses less energy in operations. Decisions should be taken on financial and energy/carbon aspects.

End-to-end costing covering devices, network and datacentre services: While an enterprise may have “cloudified” some of its services and feels it has met its sustainability goals by reducing its on-premise datacentre footprint, it may be the case that it has actually increased its overall energy use. The process of moving to the cloud means increased network energy use, but this field is rarely studied and data is sparse and difficult to ascertain on an individual company basis.

There is a climate emergency, and it is right here, right now. The use of green IT can reduce both its own environmental impact and other impacts in every other field of human life. While the ICT industry has been slow to recognise this in its own environmental impact, it will only change when users demand change.

And that change will come about by organisations buying more environmentally friendly products and services. It will also come about through legislation, which is a topic for another day.

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