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Analysis: Slow-growing green

How a fresh approach to cooling the datacentre can help with an organisation's carbon footprint

Could saving the Earth – and your company's bottom line – be as simple as using fresh air to cool the datacentre?

It's not quite that simple, but it can be one step toward those goals, because companies that use natural air to cool their facilities are seeing big benefits on both the environmental and financial fronts. In fact, IT leaders, analysts and environmental advocates say there are plenty of opportunities for tech organisations to create more Earth-friendly operations that cut energy needs and slash a company's carbon footprint while saving money, too.

But many organisations still aren't capitalizing on such initiatives -- even the ones that are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement.

IT executives who responded to Computerworld 's annual Forecast survey seem to echo that reluctance. Nearly half (42 per cent) said their IT departments have no plans to launch projects in the next 12 months to reduce energy consumption or carbon emissions, and nearly three quarters reported no plans to create committees to oversee energy-saving initiatives.

Yet experts say organisations that ignore green computing now are going to have to catch up if they want to stay competitive. "The green issue is not going to go away. There's too much at stake," Rakesh Kumar, an analyst at Gartner, said.

That's not to say IT leaders don't have their reasons for staying away from green computing. Kumar said some of them think it's a fad. Christopher Mines, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said others believe global warming is a crock and that there's no need to act on the issue, or they see green as merely increasing expenses.

Many others are nervous about reworking established systems and processes. "The last thing these people want to do is take a screwdriver to IT processes that work and start re-engineering them to make them more efficient," Mines said.

Early Adopters

Increasingly, however, IT leaders and other executives are putting aside such concerns and pushing for green IT initiatives.

When IDC surveyed 300 CEOs for its September 2008 "U.S. Green IT Survey," 44 per cent of the respondents said that IT will play a very important role in their organisations' efforts to reduce their environmental impact. Compare that to the 2007 survey, in which only 14 per cent of CEOs said they felt that way.

The 2008 survey also showed that energy costs were the most pressing reason for the adoption of green IT.

"We don't see many or indeed any companies that are hesitant to explore green IT projects," IDC analyst Vernon Turner wrote in an e-mail on this topic. "In fact, the scary thing is where to start, and it may be that reason why there is somewhat a feeling of lost souls. There has been a lot of marketing by the IT vendor community around green, and I think that CEOs and CIOs are 'green-washed' by it."

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To be sure, developing enterprisewide green policies is a major undertaking. On the other hand, IT departments can implement some green IT initiatives without reworking entire policies, processes and procedures -- and without spending a lot of cash.

Moreover, they can sell management on these projects based not just on the initiatives' environmental merits but on their financial rewards as well.

"A lot of stuff is going to give you a short-term payback," Kumar said. He said that given today's economy, CIOs should focus on green initiatives that will have paybacks well within 18 months. Projects with such quick ROI range from reducing energy demands by enabling more telecommuting and teleconferencing to consolidating datacentres, he said.

"These, in our opinion, equal green IT," Kumar said.

With so many focused on reducing energy demand, IT organisations can easily sell initiatives that reduce power consumption -- a quick way to save money and become green, said Katharine Kaplan, product manager at Energy Star for Consumer Electronics and IT at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Power management is probably one of the easiest, low-cost ways to get big, big savings," Kaplan said, pointing out that using power management features on desktop PCs can save $US50 per computer per year. Enabling power management tools on monitors can save another $12 to $90 annually per monitor.

Becky Blalock, senior vice-president and CIO at Southern, an Atlanta-based energy company, said her organisation is implementing power management technology to ensure that its 26,000 desktops are asleep at night and during other times of inactivity. Although the numbers aren't in yet, Blalock said she expects high savings throughout the organisation.

Managing desktops is just the start, said Henry Wong, senior staff technologist in the eco-technology program office at Intel. He points out that better asset management is another simple step that can cut energy demand and costs. Just examine your operations to identify and turn off any device that isn't used or needed.

Mark O'Gara, vice-president of infrastructure management at Highmark, a health insurance company in Pittsburgh, said he's examining the need for any device that draws power – any fax machine, printer or copier – and figuring how to reduce its energy demands by either using power management tools or getting rid of the device. He said he's working with the company's facilities department to get baseline readings so he'll be able to measure progress.

"You can start to see what energy we use, find opportunities to reduce power costs and find ways to reduce it through capital improvements," O'Gara said.

Another quick way to introduce green benefits that have financial paybacks is through refresh initiatives and procurement policies, said Michelle Erickson, initiative director of the sustainable IT program in global operations and technology at Citigroup in New York. For example, Citi is looking at implementing thin clients, which, because they have lower power needs, save money and reduce the company's carbon footprint.

Erickson also recommends setting procurement policies that specify that new equipment must be Energy Star-complaint, thereby ensuring that the company is getting more energy-efficient computers. And with new Energy Star standards rolling out in 2009, the policy will apply to servers too.

Similar strategies can be employed in the datacentre, Wong said. Look at the machines you have, and consolidate where you can to maximize the use of each server – but make sure that you can still meet the needs of your business units.

"We did this at Intel and had a $3 million cost avoidance," Wong said. The dollar savings came from not having to build a new physical structure and pay for that new building's ongoing maintenance. As for the green benefits, there's less demand for power and new equipment.

"You can see another building that doesn't have to exist anymore. And it's the HVAC system, the people, the maintenance area – it's not just IT. That's a really big to-do," Wong adds.

But even organisations that aren't ready for those kinds of projects can simply start by controlling the temperature, Wong said. Although it will be necessary to monitor the humidity when doing so, most companies can raise the temperature at least a few degrees and start lowering their air conditioning demands. And don't forget about using that natural air for cooling.

It might not be the biggest step, but it's a start.