CBR Thought Leaders Series: The Green Light for Green IT


by CBR Staff Writer| 28 November 2008

In the first of a new series of articles written by industry thought leaders, Rockwell C. Bonecutter, Accenture’s North America Green IT lead, runs down five ways of making a winning case for green IT.

The data is in -- IT has joined the corporate surge toward all things ‘green’. But the race is on: CIOs are feeling the pressure to deliver substantial results. The good news is that IT leadership is primed to realise meaningful energy savings within its own operations, and even to champion the green agenda across the enterprise.

CIOs are already devising ways to shrink the carbon footprint of their virtual smokestacks – particularly by reigning in the energy-hogging, ever-expanding data centres that now dot the globe.

While European companies have more incentives to go green, arising from a combination of government regulation, social pressure and operational concerns, the United States is less far along. For all organisations, a successful business case for green IT pivots mainly on cost savings and operational impacts. Are CIOs up for the challenge?

A Vision for greening business

Perhaps the IT department isn’t the likeliest place to find an environmental visionary, but the time is ripe for IT leaders to develop a vision for green IT. Having the distinction of being the biggest fuel guzzler in many industries, IT finds itself in a unique position to lead big business toward sustainability. The first step is to curb its own energy appetite, if only to keep up with the rise in demand for its services that’s outpacing gains in efficiency.

There’s another, perhaps more important, reason IT leadership is poised to pioneer the greening of business: IT has grown to command a startlingly wide influence on business operations and systems across vast organisations and industries.

Think about remote-access technology, personal communications tools, collaboration software and the colossal data centres that support them: They are continuously reshaping how we use energy and how we work, travel and live.

The growth and function of workplace environments, procurement methodologies and supply chains are all within the sphere of influence of IT leaders. We’ve observed this by working with Fortune 500 companies over many years. The influence also extends to automation of compliance with environmental regulations such as carbon emissions caps and the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive.

Saving Dollars in Obvious Ways

For a green initiative to be successful, the first hurdle is to get the business behind it. With oil prices up and the economy wheezing, companies are keeping a watchful eye on costs. Projects that made an acceptable business case two years ago are now scrutinised tenaciously for their concrete advantages to business operations.

Getting the green light on green IT initiatives, therefore, means leading with projects that clearly save money. Fortunately, by Accenture’s estimates at least two-thirds of the green initiatives IT departments can launch today would have an economic payoff. 

So where do organisations begin? First, here’s where not to begin: Many companies make the mistake of taking advice solely from their own hardware and software vendors. It’s wiser to take a broad view of the issues at stake, and the abundance the market has to offer.

The first step is for IT departments to gain insight into their power consumption and environmental footprints. Several companies now offer tools to help organisations do just that. Service integrators and niche players are introducing new capabilities to pinpoint projects that offer the most business benefits, the soonest.

There are at least five key areas where CIOs and their leadership teams can germinate their planning efforts, and develop a strong business case for going green:

1. Make the data centre the epicentre
Data centres are the best place to start with a green IT agenda. These concrete-sheathed jungles of computing, networking and storage equipment, and power and cooling systems, buttress our core economic institutions – including banking and financial services, media, manufacturing, transportation, education, health care and government. They’ve become a critical branch of our national infrastructure.

It’s not surprising that our dependency on data centres raises concerns about rising greenhouse gas emissions and the reliability of the power grid.

The 2007 Environmental Protection Agency Report to Congress on Server and Data Centre Energy Efficiency notes that in 2006, data centres accounted for about 1.5% of US energy consumption. That figure is expected to double over five years, to the tune of $7.4 billion annually. The good news is that by EPA estimates, existing technologies and strategies could reduce server consumption by some 25%. Advanced technologies could do even more. The problem is big, but many of the solutions are within reach. 

The 2008 Data Centre Energy Resources Report lends credence to the EPA estimates, with case studies showing that revamping existing data centres can achieve energy efficiency similar to a new, greener data centre built from scratch.

The report is the first of its kind to evaluate the EPA's data-centre energy growth scenarios. It came about when the Silicon Valley Leadership Group selected Accenture to analyse the results of 17 case studies conducted by its corporate members.

The case studies involved testing emerging green practices and technologies, and they go a long way toward demonstrating quantifiable results. The upshot: Companies can realise significant savings by adopting practices and state-of-the-art technologies like virtualising servers, and using power-management tools and variable-speed drives. These approaches can extend a data centre’s lifespan at a fraction of the cost of building a new one, which would be upwards of $1,000 per square foot.

As the European Commission put it this spring in its newly released Code of Conduct for Data Centres, “there are efficiency gains…still to be realised without prohibitive initial costs, and that lower the Total Cost of Ownership.” The EC calls for organisations to voluntarily comply with guidelines for energy efficient IT capacity and heating and cooling systems.

Several Fortune 500 companies have already made strides to reduce electricity consumption. Hewlett-Packard Development Co. is installing its “smart cooling” technology in data centres worldwide, notably in a large facility in Bangalore, India.

Telecoms giant BT, meanwhile – having Europe’s largest data centres, which absorb close to 0.7% of Britain’s total power output – has cut its power use there by more than 60% in recent years. The investment payback took fewer than 18 months.

There are active and passive approaches to improving energy efficiency. Virtualisation is an active approach that fights ‘server sprawl’ at its source: the ever-growing tangle of power-hungry hardware and other resources required to run a company’s applications. Consolidate servers by running several virtual servers from a single physical one, and you can reduce hardware, power consumption and cooling all at once.

A more passive approach to greening the data centre is to replace, when the time comes, old hardware on the floor with more energy-efficient hardware. This has the nifty moniker, ‘intelligent refresh’.

To strengthen the green data-centre business case, IT managers should present ‘what if’ scenarios. What if energy prices were to rise by a percentage point, for instance? Or what if a cleaner power source were to become available, or capacity demand for servers or storage were to shift? Such scenarios let CIOs develop a roadmap for a data-centre strategy, including before-and-after snapshots.

Accurate metrics are essential to successful green data centre initiatives. Especially with virtualisation, it’s important to analyze power-consumption data. Some experts warn of potential system crashes from distributing storage and processing cycles without sufficient attention to power issues.

Several companies, including our own Technology Labs, are creating tools to aggregate kilowatt-hour consumption of data-centre machines, and predict consumption changes under varying energy-saving configurations. Tools like this can draw from case-studies databases and detailed performance data. They can assess solutions such as water cooling, server virtualisation, multicore processors and free cooling.

Cisco Systems plans to use the enterprise data network as a kind of electricity meter, gathering data on factors such as power consumption and operating temperature from server and storage equipment vendors. Such information not only helps manage data-centre energy consumption, but also allocate and bill for electricity costs according to a department’s usage.

Another green metrics tool we’re currently testing in Europe applies analytics to information about current IT practices. This helps benchmark the “green maturity” level of an organisation, and identify quick wins and areas for long-term improvement.

2. Foster telecommuting and other green work practices
The second sphere of influence for CIOs and their leadership teams is in fostering green work practices. IT can play a leading role in changing employee behaviour. This starts with enabling people to work remotely by providing ‘thin client’ and Web-based business services.

At US airline JetBlue Airways, the call-centre staff is highly motivated and unusually productive. This is partly because web-based systems let employees work from home and control their work hours. The systems match staff to call demand, ensuring that JetBlue always has the right level of staffing.

IT also can reinforce policies encouraging employees to conserve energy, turning off computers after use rather than leaving them on standby, recycling waste, and printing documents only as necessary. 

3. Partner with facilities management to rewire and recycle
By coordinating with facilities managers, IT departments can reduce energy consumption on company premises. Install energy-efficient office equipment, including double-sided printers, to save on consumables such as paper and toner. Ensure that office equipment, computers and lights turn off automatically when not in use.

Postponing desktop replacement can make a dent in a company’s carbon footprint. The energy required to make the average PC equals four-fifths of that computer’s energy consumption over its lifetime.

Internet protocol links for all communications—including VoIP to replace traditional phone landlines—can cut production, installation, and duplication of office cabling.

4. Buy Green
There are two principal ways IT can make an enormous and rapid difference by buying green.

First, CIOs can require that all hardware purchases be accredited through Energy Star or similar programs. They can favour suppliers that are proactive about reducing, reusing or recycling their packaging. Going further, IT can rate suppliers on the extent to which they run their businesses in environmentally acceptable ways.

Second, CIOs in industries that produce and distribute goods can achieve new efficiencies and environmental benefits by collaborating with the company’s supply chain and logistics experts. Find processes and tools that engender “smart logistics”—maximizing freight payloads, consolidating shipments, improving supply chain visibility to minimise distances shipped, and evaluating the carbon footprints of transportation options.

5. Advance corporate citizenship
As CIOs adopt green practices internally and extend them across the organisation, they can also participate in community activities and contribute to the company image as a responsible corporate citizen.

Recycling IT assets to local charities, or help neighbouring small businesses do so. Launch a communications campaign with regional government to encourage people to turn off PCs when not in use.

Share your story through articles, web content and other communications to share your successes with customers, suppliers, investors, analysts and the media – who are all taking a keen interest in the environmental performance of companies these days.

As big energy guzzlers with wide organization influence in a lean economy, IT operations can make a big difference with the right green initiatives now. The evidence suggests CIOs are up to the challenge.

CIOs and their management teams can pilot their organizations toward an ecologically responsible approach to business. In the process, they will gain an optimistic story to tell – a story that celebrates benefits for the environment as well as for the bottom line.

Rockwell C. Bonecutter is Accenture’s North America Green IT lead, and heads the company’s Data Centre Technology and Operations practice in North America. He is based in Columbus, Ohio.

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