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Allstate Insurance: Software decisions play into green strategies

From virtual servers to teleconferences, this insurer, ranked No. 6, finds ways to save in every corner.

By Mary Brandel
October 25, 2010 12:01 AM ET

Computerworld - When it comes to green initiatives, 2009 was a banner year for Allstate Insurance, with the opening of a $55 million LEED Gold-certified data center and plans to consolidate four data center facilities into two.

It's a hard act to follow, but since then, according to Anthony Abbattista, vice president of technology solutions, the company has become even more dedicated to environmental responsibility. Now it's a matter of taking what it learned from the new facility and applying it to the rest of the company. "We're seeing the business case come alive," Abbattista says.

When decommissioning is complete, Allstate will have closed three of its four data centers. "I'd expect we'll have halved our power costs to run the data centers in our company by the end of this year," Abbattista says. It has also eliminated 1,500 physical servers, thanks to server virtualization, and it plans to continue shifting its ratio of virtual to physical servers in the coming years, further reducing energy demands, Abbattista says.

The staff is similarly dedicated to taking its new knowledge in raised-floor design and energy efficiency and not only continuing to tweak it in the new facility, but also applying it to the existing one, says Brandi Landreth, director of data center strategy. "They're really paying attention to the individual servers, like looking at the hot rows and cold rows to see whether they're hot or cold enough. People are interested now who weren't before."

It's this follow-up work that's so important, Landreth says. "We could build a really energy-efficient building and meet LEED standards for construction, but if we don't put the operational practices behind that, we won't achieve the benefits," she says. "That's where, over the long term, we'll start to see the payoff."

Next, Abbattista's group is focusing on on-demand software models and thread-rich designs that take advantage of variable and shared capacity. "We're looking beyond the physical ways to save energy, to how do we make better software decisions," he says.

Green Teamwork

Allstate's approach to green IT was to start out by proving a concept and then scaling it into other areas. But Anthony Abbattista, vice president of technology solutions, says employees quickly caught on. "Once we had some small successes, we marketed them a little bit and were pleasantly surprised at the pickup," he says. For instance, the initial plan for the new data center was to work toward a LEED Bronze certification, he says. But when IT realized how good the business case was, it began working with the property group to strive for -- and achieve -- the more stringent Gold certification.

IT has also renewed its commitment to collaboration tools, to reduce the need for employee travel. Already, with the help of VoIP technology, virtual desktops and videoconferencing, more employees are working from home, either full or part time. The number of full-time home-based workers in IT has risen by 10% in the past two years, Landreth says.

Best practices for sustainability are shared via the corporate intranet, and the company holds contests for the most innovative green solutions.

"Allstate has clearly driven data center design to a high efficiency level; however, I am also struck by its interest in opening up the corporate suggestion box, with rewards for good ideas," says Mark Peters, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. "No one should ever assume that the best green ideas can only come from 'on high' or from the 'green teams.'"

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Next: No. 7: George Washington University's servers are virtualized, and desktops are next.

Read more about Data Center in Computerworld's Data Center Topic Center.



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