Many companies put green info tech on the back burner during the recession, but using less energy can be a boost to the bottom line in tough times
It's no surprise that for some companies green initiatives are dropping down the list of IT priorities. In a recent silicon.com survey, more than a quarter of respondents admitted green IT was off the agenda because of the recession.
But many organisations have found the key is to align green goals with broader cost-cutting initiatives—which are definitely in vogue with CIOs and CFOs. In some cases government policies are already giving businesses a shove in the right direction. For example, in July 2008, the UK government informed 10,000 businesses that they could be affected by the Carbon Reduction Commitment—a climate change and energy-saving scheme that will take effect in 2010.
Under the scheme, organisations which use more than roughly £500,000 of electricity per year (including hotel chains, large local authorities and supermarket chains) will have to purchase allowances equivalent to their carbon emissions each year, giving them a direct financial incentive to get greener.
But even for organisations that don't come into that group, green initiatives can have benefits for the bottom line.
Getting green on the desktop…
So where to start? The most common steps that companies are taking to implement green policies are related to desktop infrastructure. Research group Forrester (FORR) claims that 55 per cent of energy consumed by UK firms is outside of the datacentre, so centralising management of the desktop environment is essential.
Cameron Green, green IT partnerships manager at environmental charity Global Action Plan, said having users turn off their PCs and monitors when they leave work, and utilising the energy management features of operating systems, can cut energy use per PC by 40 per cent.
Similarly with printers, timer switches can be installed to turn printers off automatically when they are not being used. Using recycled paper, dropping desktop printers in favour of shared multi-function devices and duplex printing also all have a role to play in reducing print wastage. "Follow-me printing, where a user has to confirm the print job at the device can reduce paper usage by up to 30 per cent through reducing errant print jobs," said Green.
One of the most wasteful practices in the desktop space is over-zealous hardware refresh cycles. Companies often renew their office hardware every three years without necessarily questioning the business case of upgrades, staff retraining and other overheads involved.
"Thin client technology can extend your refresh cycles, whilst reducing energy and waste from your computing infrastructure," advised Green. "The alternative is to simply extend your hardware refresh cycle to five years, or whenever it is ascertained the business needs of your users aren't being met."
…and in the datacentre
Although these efforts should be welcomed, the long-term effects of these initiatives are limited, and cutting energy consumption within datacentres is potentially much more meaningful.
Server virtualisation, storage consolidation, upgrades to cooling systems and purchasing energy-efficient servers are all top priorities.
"At the datacentre level, the main thing that has happened over the last couple of years is that, whereas previously people didn't care too much about the efficiency of their datacentres, suddenly everybody cares," said Gartner analyst Simon Mingay.
However, while the increase in awareness is an important step, the implementation of energy-saving measures needs to be carefully managed.
"What people have been doing for the most part so far has been what I would describe as the comfortable and the familiar," said Mingay. "For the most part… they haven't actually sat back and asked, what are the material issues that we should be addressing?"
A major contributor to this issue is the lack of understanding among many IT professionals about the best way to optimise energy-saving processes. A recent study revealed that 83 per cent of server managers admitted they do not have an adequate grasp of server utilisation. Nearly two-thirds said they relied on manual checks to find unused servers, or waited until something was broken.
Even in cases where managers understand the technology, they may often not be using it to optimum effect. A September survey by Gartner (IT) found that IT chiefs weren't paying enough attention to measuring, monitoring and modelling energy use in datacentres, focusing on immediate concerns rather than looking at the bigger picture.
Auditing and setting targets
With rising energy prices, it now costs more to power some servers than to buy them in the first place. "Servers require much of their power even when they are not performing useful tasks. On average 15 per cent of running servers in the average datacentre are unutilised, and many of the remaining are under-utilised," said Global Action Plan's Green.
In order to tackle this problem, Forrester recommends IT departments perform assessments of their asset and application inventories and calculate the energy required to run them. They then need to set themselves targets in cutting emissions and take steps to ensure they are investing in the right technologies.
These could include reconfiguring datacentre equipment to improve airflow and reduce cooling requirements, removing under-used and redundant applications and turning off the hardware associated with those applications, or putting a server and storage virtualisation plan into action.
"Buying more robust hardware and virtualising servers within them brings large energy reduction costs, flexibility in serving and superior overall usage of resources," said Green. "Management and provisioning of new services are centralised and therefore reductions in administration costs can also be expected."
Despite ongoing efforts to improve energy efficiency, Gartner predicts that power consumption within the IT sector will continue to increase at a rate of around 2.4 per cent per year. The introduction of new, innovative measures to slow this growth is therefore an essential element in the reduction of the UK's carbon footprint.
Referring to the EC's recent recommendation to the IT industry, Gartner's Mingay says: "If we're serious about 90 per cent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and 20 per cent by 2020, then the marginal incrementalism isn't going to touch it," Mingay said.
One of the key areas that companies should be looking at, according to Mingay, is investing in server power management software that makes "a better connection between the power that is being consumed and the work that is being performed".
However, he said that "whilst energy remains cheap and carbon remains free, that absolutely limits what will be done. The thing that will drive further investment by end user organisations in energy-efficient equipment will be when the financial case compels them to do so".
In the short term, companies can be focusing on the improvements they can make at little or no cost, while drawing up long-term targets and strategies for drastically reducing their emissions. Although these long-term targets may require initial investment, they also have the potential to bring substantial financial rewards with the introduction of carbon taxation in 2010.
Companies also need to be tapping into the importance of the safe disposal of e-waste, which can contain high levels of toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. Global Action Plan's Green explains that much of this waste is ending up in the developing world, where it is being disassembled in ways that threaten people and the environment. "Companies need to ensure their e-waste recyclers are ethical and don't simply send the equipment off to a poorer country to deal with," he said.
Green clouds on the horizon?
But can any of this year's hyped technologies help with companies' green aspirations? Gartner's Mingay recommends firms should be looking to cloud computing to provide the next step in green innovation. "As opposed to everybody having their own infrastructure, which involves a huge amount of inefficiency, if cloud can deliver on the promise there is the potential for it to be much more energy and materially efficient," he says.
The IT industry has the potential to change the way society operates on an environmental level if it is willing to take the plunge and make those big investments but initiatives have to be well structured, well planned and well co-ordinated.
Forrester analyst Chris Mines has come up with a list of recommendations for CIOs to be putting into action now:
Identify and get on board key organisational allies, especially facilities/estate and finance teams.
Perform an assessment (or hire a consultant to do one) of IT's asset and application inventory and the energy required to run it.
Set goals about reducing that energy consumption and resulting carbon emissions.
Identify the top initiatives to go about reaching those goals.
Write a Green IT Action Plan that documents all of the above and then aggressively communicate the plan to internal stakeholders, especially senior management.