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CIOs essential to reverse green computing apathy

Shamus McGillicuddy

CIOs are thinking green. After all, how can they avoid it? From ex-US presidential candidates to movie stars to major businesses, it seems like everybody who's anybody is on the environmentally friendly bandwagon.

Yet despite the fact that businesses acknowledge the issue's importance, very few CIOs are actually going green yet.

Forrester Research recently reported that 85% of surveyed IT procurement and operations professionals said environmental concerns were important in planning their IT operations. And 72% said they were aware of vendors' efforts to promote 'green IT' in the design, operation and disposal of their products.

However, 78% of respondents said green IT has not been written into their evaluation and selection criteria for IT systems and devices. Green IT is Forrester's term for vendor and IT organisations' efforts to reduce the environmentally harmful impact that technology has on the environment, while simultaneously realising better efficiency and reduced costs.

"That's not an unusual type of behavioural model to see," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Research, said of CIO inaction. "Frankly, I think we're in sort of the early days of this."

Ask 10 CIOs what being green actually means, and you'll get 10 answers. For some, it involves buying technology that is more energy efficient, and lowering power and cooling costs. For others, it means buying hardware from environmentally friendly

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vendors, disposing of old hardware in a responsible way, or purchasing renewable energy to power technology.

King said the lack of action on green technology can be traced in part to the disconnect between IT and facilities management. In general, IT makes decisions based on computing demands, while facilities management makes decisions based on the cost and availability of energy. CIOs know green technology is important, but they may not see it as urgent, the way a facilities manager may, because IT doesn't see the rising electricity bills.

Getting serious about getting green

In fact, green technology often doesn't become an imperative until power and cooling issues prevent CIOs from putting more servers in a data centre. That day may not be as far away as you think: Gartner recently concluded that, by next year, fully half of all data centres will have too little power and cooling capacity to keep up with the increasing demands of their infrastructure.

Despite such ominous warnings, a study released recently by UK consultancy DMW Group confirmed a lack of strong consideration for environmental issues in technology planning. Only 30% of UK companies plan to create a green data centre in the next five years, DMW found, while just 23% of respondents said green credentials were important in IT equipment selection. By contrast, 83% of IT managers factored in performance when selecting equipment.

Recognising that developing sustainable ICT will require a fundamental shift in attitudes, many CIOs are getting more proactive about environmental strategies. To lend its weight to the environmental discussion, the Australasian arm of the global CIO Executive Council this week launched its Sustainable ICT Initiative, which will see the country's 450-strong peak CIO council taking on an education, advocacy and strategic role to help companies get smarter about their sustainable ICT efforts.

Carsten Larsen, who serves a double bill as CIO and general manager of commercial development at ACT power authority ActewAGL, sees his support of the Sustainable ICT project as a reflection of his broader role within the business.

"It's all about how do you move from being a functional head to being a more strategic part of the business," he explains. "We want to provide tools to [CIO] colleagues so when the question 'how are you going to make us sustainable' gets asked by the board, they don't have to go searching far and wide to find the answers."

Larsen has already overseen several projects aimed at reducing the company's environmental footprint - including the shift from CRT to LCD monitors and use of Citrix Systems thin client technology to reduce the need for desktop PCs. ActewAGL is currently in the process of moving its data centre to higher-density blade servers and a centralised storage area network.

Later this year, Larsen anticipates engaging the board about creating "the next-generation data centre and power infrastructure, which is going to be a sustainable as we can make it."

If you can measure it, you can green it

The idea of green computing isn't new. As early as 1992, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated the voluntary labelling program known as Energy Star in an effort to promote energy efficiency in computer hardware.

Energy Star has become widely adopted by equipment manufacturers, many of which have recently seized upon the mooted cost savings of green technology as a key marketing strategy. In October 2006, the EPA revised Energy Star requirements for computers (http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=revisions.computer_spec) as the foundation for a tighter standard to come into effect in July.

In December 2006, the push for energy efficiency took another step after the U.S. House of Representatives directed the EPA to study energy consumption and promote energy efficiency in data centres. The EPA's findings - handed down in draft form (http://www.energystar.gov/ia/products/downloads/EPA_Server_Report_Public_Draft_23Apr.pdf) on April 23 - noted that in the US at least, total nationwide data centre power consumption of 59 billion kWh/year makes it the sixth largest consumer of electricity by industry.

This ongoing work is likely to lead the EPA to develop an Energy Star ratings program for servers and other data centre equipment. It is also developing a standard method for rating the energy efficiency of corporate data centres - something already offered by industry consortium The Green Grid (http://www.thegreengrid.com) through its Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) method.

The Australian government has yet to take such direct action on data centre power consumption, but the US EPA's efforts are being closely watched worldwide and history suggests change could soon be afoot if they are judged successful.

Cost is the No. 1 reason cited by most businesses that either prevents them or spurs them into going green. Unless there's an equipment refresh or a data centre design on the docket, most businesses won't swap things out just for the sake of a social conscience, say some experts.

But when the rising costs of power starts to take a huge chunk out of their budgets, Forrester's research suggests organisations start taking green computing more seriously. Combine cost savings and concern for the environment, and that's the ticket to change.

"They are both of equal importance to me," said George Bock, senior director of IT at sportswear manufacturer Sole Technology. "We're always about saving dollars. But with the added focus we are putting on every level of the company for being a green company, we are all driving in that direction." Bock's CEO has dictated that his company incorporate green thinking into everything it does, "from our products, to solar panels on our building, to waterless urinals in the bathrooms."

The US$200 million manufacturer of sports apparel and footwear recently added an environmental affairs manager who will examine the environmental impact of the entire company. Once his company gets that assessment, Bock said he believes his IT organisation will dive into green technology.

Some businesses are waiting for an all-in-one green solution -- a magic bullet -- but that's unrealistic, experts say. King said so far, most efforts on green technology have focused on point solutions like more energy-efficient processors or servers. And this, he argued, is never going to drive enough change on its own.

"In order to approach the situation efficiently and find a corrected or ideal path, it requires companies to approach this on a really systemic basis," King said. "Low-energy servers aren't going to fix it. Low-energy processors aren't going to fix it. Improving efficiency of power and cooling won't fix it. It's a combination of all these factors, when aggregated together, that is going to have an impact. This requires companies to break down walls in decision-making, and to get different parts of the company to talk about this stuff."

Incremental change, immediate payback

Experts say every little bit helps, and that includes the keystone of environmental friendliness -- recycling.

Jon Beyer, cofounder and CIO of plant food manufacturer TerraCycle, says his company's entire mission is to be green. The company harvests worm waste to create plant food and then sells it in recycled soda bottles. That corporate mission extends to his IT organisation.

"We just try to reuse older equipment as much as possible," Beyer said. "Rather than purchase new workstations and laptops, we pay for refurbished equipment. We're fairly small now, so we are able to do that. As we continue to grow, I like to think we can continue to do that."

Beyer said some larger companies may not want to use older equipment, but there are incremental ways for them to be green as well. He said they could transition to using more thin clients instead of desktops.

"A thin client uses 15 watts of energy instead of 150 watts for workstations," he said.

Indeed, King said incremental change can work for those companies that don't have a lot of money to spend on big, comprehensive solutions. Server virtualisation technology from vendors like VMWare, for instance, is a big step toward going green.

"VMware is great," King said. "It's a technology that can be leveraged across existing servers as well as new boxes. It's not a technology that requires a company to go in and do a complete rip and replace. It's an incremental solution that has an incremental but very immediate payback."

Vendor bandwagon

Vendors are gradually jumping on the virtualisation bandwagon to get IT decision makers to start thinking about their data centre efficiency.

IBM, for example, recently announced a new US$1 billion initiative, dubbed 'Project Big Green', which will offer a comprehensive suite of services and technologies that will enable companies to assess environmental problems in their data centres and how they can go about fixing them.

Steve Sams, IBM vice president of Global Site and Facilities Services, said the lack of products on the market was part of why IBM was launching Big Green. "There is awareness at some levels, but clients aren't taking action," he said.

"Clients don't have the facts. They know their energy bill is increasing, but they haven't done a projection. It's caught them by surprise. And they might not know how their data centres compare with others for energy efficiency. There are no tools to give them that assessment of what the problems are and what actions they can take to resolve them. I don't think anybody believed there was a set of tools and capabilities available today that can significantly improve this problem."

IBM's Big Green includes five stages of greening the data centre. It combines services and new t