The Green Maze

Reducing IT's energy bill is the easy part. Going green gets complicated when you try to master issues like renewable energy and responsible recycling.

A few months ago, Harvey Betan, a business continuity consultant in New York, was helping a client interview a potential disaster recovery facility provider. There was nothing unusual about the meeting until the client asked an eye-opening question: Did the provider use alternative sources of energy, like solar or wind power? No, it didn't, but the discussion continued as Betan and his client -- Jeff Saper, CIO at strategic communications firm Robinson Lerer & Montgomery LLC -- drove away in Saper's hybrid Ford Escape.

"I thought it was the perfect opportunity," Saper says. "They were on top of a hill with a flat warehouse facility that easily could have housed solar." Saper passed on that provider and is continuing his search farther north, in upstate New York.

Clearly, environmental concerns are near and dear to Saper's heart, and not just for the sake of the bottom line. In his mind, it is IT's responsibility as the biggest consumer of electricity in the company to set the table not just for reduced energy consumption and efficient computer use, but for all things green. Through his own IT-initiated green program, backed by the CEO, he has reduced servers by 50% to 75% through virtualization; has adjusted the data center's cooling system for peak efficiency; and purchases only Energy Star equipment that also meets environmental criteria set by the Green Electronics Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The firm also donates old equipment to charitable organizations or uses Dell Inc.'s asset recovery program; has moved some users to thin clients and all to LCD monitors; equipped employees with laptops and broadband so they can telecommute; purchased solar-powered battery adapters for users' BlackBerry devices and Razr phones; and configured Microsoft Active Directory to automatically power down users' PCs and monitors. Plus, employees are continuously educated on environmental actions they can take, like printing documents double-sided and buying reusable water bottles and coffee mugs.

"There's no question that my personal, social mind-set goes a long way toward why we're implementing green initiatives," Saper says.

Brick Walls

But there's always more you can do, he says, and it doesn't take long before you hit a brick wall (note his ongoing search for a green disaster recovery facility). The fact is, while it's become fairly straightforward to buy energy-efficient PCs and reduce the electrical load of the data center, there's nothing simple about tackling the full gamut of environmental issues raised by the corporate world's dependence on technology.

Outside the data center, the trade-offs and complexities of going green are rampant. Before purchasing an energy-efficient fluorescent light bulb, for instance, you might want to research how to dispose of it, considering that it contains small amounts of mercury. And if you purchase natural products from environmentally conscious companies, you might be surprised to learn how often those Earth-friendly ingredients are shipped from overseas locales, adding to the world's carbon emission load.

It's no different in IT. As Simon Mingay, an analyst at Gartner Inc., puts it, "The more you know, the more you know you don't know."

Take the European Union's RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) directive. Because RoHS requires electronics manufacturers to remove substances like lead from their products, the new manufacturing processes they developed for their circuit boards end up consuming more energy because they run at higher temperatures. Mingay also points to the Green Electronics Council's Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), for example. The online tool helps companies compare computer equipment based on a seemingly exhaustive list of environmental attributes, such as percentage of toxic and recycled materials, energy efficiency, ease of disassembly, upgradability, packaging, take-back options and performance criteria. However, EPEAT currently evaluates only monitors and PCs, and it doesn't yet compare the equipment's "embodied energy," or the amount of energy that went into manufacturing, assembling, shipping and distributing the product and all its parts.

"It only looks at the end-use phase, because that's what everyone understands," Mingay says. But research suggests that embodied energy is where the focus should eventually be, because there's about an 80-20 split between the energy consumed in making and distributing the product vs. using it, he says. That is the next frontier for vendors to begin differentiating themselves, says Mingay.

Not Just About ROI

Indeed, it takes a truly green mentality to tackle such complexities, which are less easy to cost-justify than, say, adjusting the cooling system in your data center or moving to energy-efficient equipment. A truly green approach involves taking strategic measures like re-architecting your computing infrastructure, researching renewable energy, recycling responsibly and rethinking how technology can improve material efficiency and even reduce carbon and greenhouse-gas emissions. An example is investing in videoconferencing and remote collaboration tools to cut down on travel, or using Web portals rather than paper to disseminate information.

Initiatives like Energy Star and EPEAT "only address one question, which is what you buy," Mingay says. "The essence of green IT is what you buy, how you use it, how you get rid of it and what problems you apply it to."

In other words, while it's pretty easy today to create a business case for minimizing energy consumption, the easy ROI stuff goes only so far. Organizations can cut costs 10% to 25% in the first year of an energy-saving program, with little expenditure, Mingay says. "But the challenge will come after the low-hanging fruit -- what do you do then?" he says. "In the U.S., what's motivating most organizations to act is primarily about saving energy or money, and the environmental benefits are at best secondary, if not incidental."

Above the Low-hanging Fruit

One company that's reaching pretty far up the tree is Citigroup Inc. In 2003, it launched an initiative to reduce the number of its more than 54 data centers around the world and determined that wherever possible, any new data centers it built would conform to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

One of the biggest challenges, says James Carney, head of data center planning and analysis in Citigroup's technology infrastructure group, was finding building designers and suppliers who understood that while sustainability was a top goal, the company couldn't compromise on performance and reliability. It also required a lot of research to select materials that were environmentally sound from cradle to grave. For instance, it wasn't easy to find a manufacturer of precast walls that used a large amount of recycled materials and whose plant was relatively close to the building site to keep transportation costs and emissions low.

Citigroup also worked to choose geographic locations where the utility companies had enough supplemental power that they could service the data center without building new infrastructure. It also tried to find providers of green energy, which was easier in Europe than in the U.S. Its data center in Frankfurt, for instance, will run on zero carbon electricity, primarily hydro-generated, according to John Killey, head of Citi Realty Services for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. By the end of 2008 in Europe, he says, 30% of Citigroup's data center energy will have a zero-carbon footprint. In its Texas data center, some power will be supplied by the Lower Colorado River Basin and from wind farms, Killey says. But according to Carney, it's getting easier to go green, now that the notion of sustainability has grown in the computing world. "Five years ago, vendors said, 'Why are you even asking us these questions?'" he says. "Now, they can tell us their equipment has X amount of reduction in terms of embedded carbon." Citigroup also found that the goals of sustainability often went hand in hand with its other goals of reliability, performance and cost optimization.

A big advantage that Citigroup had is that its technology infrastructure group already worked closely with its realty services group, which isn't the case at many companies. The groups worked together on site selection, design, construction and disposal of the old data center equipment. "If people have different mind-sets from the IT and facilities worlds, it creates a lot of tension, and you won't have a successful project," Carney says.

Getting to Square One

Indeed, until both IT and the facilities groups share responsibility for the electric bill, IT has little incentive to care about reducing its power usage, says Chris Mines, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. In fact, for some companies, just making IT and the end-user community more environmentally aware is a challenge itself.

For example, according to Betan, it's rare to find an IT organization concerned about properly disposing its computer equipment after a disaster. And in many cases, he says, he still sees data centers with big air conditioners blowing out cold air indiscriminately to the entire room. "We talk to them about other options, but they haven't yet thought of it themselves," Betan says.

Lloyd Mainers, U.S. East Coast manager for Sandy, Utah-based SubZero Engineering, agrees that awareness is low. His company develops computational fluid dynamic (CFD) models to visually illustrate how hot and cold air is flowing in the data center. Companies can then take simple steps -- like balancing airflow, filling holes in the floor or moving the perforated tiles that blow air -- to more precisely cool its computer equipment, which increases efficiency.

"We find that most data centers have far more AC than they could ever need, but no real thought has been given to moving the cool air to where it's needed," Mainers says. According to The Green Grid consortium, companies could save 25% of their energy costs by implementing recommendations that result from CFD models.

Indeed, according to Mines, while there's a growing awareness of environmental concerns in enterprise IT organizations, there aren't many tangible activities backing up that awareness. In a recent Forrester survey of 124 procurement and operations professionals in IT, he says, only 29% identified data center power and cooling as important issues.

Beyond the data center lie even more challenges, Mines says, particularly in terms of changing behaviors and developing well-followed green policies and processes. "As hard as it is to reconfigure the data center," he says, "it's even harder to get people to change, even when it comes to basic stuff like turning off the lights." For instance, he says, very few companies -- just 20% of survey respondents -- said they have rewritten their procurement policies to include environmental criteria. Other policies that need to be reviewed are how companies dispose of old equipment. "It's a classic issue where IT people, facilities, finance and security all have to be involved because they all have a stake and somewhat contradictory and overlapping goals," Mines says. Facilities might see it as old junk it just wants out of the building, while finance wants to maximize the return on investment.

The EPA is all too aware of the difficulty of behavior change. It recently launched a multipronged campaign to educate companies on the merits of using power management features on PCs, which switch the computer to low-power mode after a period of disuse. The EPA is fighting a long tradition of IT organizations disabling power management settings because in the past they caused computer freeze-ups and interfered with automated maintenance processes, such as overnight patch management.

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