The Other Green

What motivates companies to cut IT's carbon footprint? Self-interest.
Yasmin GhahremaniJuly 15, 2008

For all the undeniable benefits of the information-technology revolution, it comes at a cost, or costs. The first is energy: U.S. data centers consumed 61 billion kilowatt hours in 2006, ten times the amount consumed by all residences and businesses in San Francisco. That in turn exacts an environmental price, with IT serving as an underappreciated but sizable contributor to Corporate America’s collective carbon footprint.

Whatever the dangers of the latter, it is the former that has companies taking action. In a survey by Forrester Research asking companies that have carried out green IT initiatives what motivated them, the number-one answer was high energy costs. “It’s not necessarily to save the planet,” says Christopher Mines, a senior vice president at Forrester. “It’s the other green.”

Environmental concerns did rank second, but some experts say that reducing energy usage may depend less on what the priorities are than on who sets them. “This is often seen as just another issue for the IT organization,” says Ken Brill, founder of the Uptime Institute, an IT benchmarking and consulting firm based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “But the CFO knows it’s about the viability of the company. If he or she mandates that you have to look at the energy efficiency of equipment when making procurement decisions, you’ll see big changes.”

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Cutting energy costs doesn’t just hinge on buying the newest, most energy-efficient equipment. There are a number of related steps that can help companies drive down IT power consumption by half over a period of 12 to 18 months, according to Brill.

The first order of business may be to consolidate servers. “There is gold all over the floor of the data center waiting for someone to pick it up,” says Brill. He estimates that up to 30 percent of the servers in a typical data center could be shut off because they are obsolete and were never decommissioned. Of those left, Brill says that, on average, 95 percent of their capacity goes untapped.

Virtualization technology is designed to address that. Typically, a server runs only a single operating system and one application. Virtualization software allows one server to run multiple operating systems and applications, thus doing the job of as many as 30 devices. The Uptime Institute estimates that turning off just one $2,500 server would save up to $1,270 a year in direct electricity and cooling costs, not to mention associated software and maintenance costs, and eliminate tons of greenhouse gases.

Virtualization has helped Highmark Inc., a Pennsylvania-based health insurer, lower IT power consumption by 10 percent this year. It’s not without challenges, however. “Users think they own a server, and even if it’s only being 5 percent utilized they don’t want anyone else on it,” says chief information officer Tom Tabor. “So it’s been a culture change.”

Whatever the number of boxes in the data center, better cooling technologies can yield big savings. As servers have become more powerful, the amount of heat they generate has risen; at the same time, they have become more sensitive to high temperatures. Old methods of air conditioning an entire room are being jettisoned as companies find innovative ways to chill equipment.

Highmark uses a unique system in which air handlers push cold air under the floor of the data center and then pull it up through the data racks and ultimately back through the air handlers. Each rack has a monitor that regulates fan speed based on the amount of cooling required. In addition, the building collects rainwater on the roof, which flows into a 100,000 gallon underground storage tank. There it evaporates and helps cool the equipment.

Highmark is not unique in harnessing nature’s cooling powers. Marriott International is constructing a new data center 220 feet below the ground in a former limestone mine where the air temperature is always in the mid 50s (Fahrenheit). When the 10,000-square-foot facility opens in 2009, Marriott estimates that the energy costs will be half that of a similar data center built above ground. “The reason we’re doing this is we care about the environment, but we also care about the dollars,” says Wendell Fox, the company’s senior vice president of shared services, information resources.

A Big Turn-Off

While data centers are the worst power hogs on a per-machine basis, front-office computers are actually responsible for a larger percentage of energy costs in most companies. One energy-saving technique is literally at your fingertips: turn on the power-management functions that already exist on personal computers, or use power-management software for even greater savings. “Depending on what the practice is, you can see dramatic savings — around 50 percent on the electricity bill for your PC population,” says Forrester’s Mines.

Just ask Jack Malinsky, director of operations for Boston’s City Hall. In early 2007, the 1,500 desktop PCs in City Hall were sucking up power overnight. The IT department had written a program to put them into sleep mode, but even when asleep computers can consume up to 30 percent of the power they use when active. The mayor was on an environmental crusade, and office-wide memos asking employees to shut off their computers weren’t having much effect. So Malinsky’s team installed Verdiem’s Surveyor program, which automatically turns off the computers from 5 p.m. until 7 a.m., albeit with flexibility. “The software allows us to tailor the policy if there are people who regularly need to work late,” says Malinsky.

Energy consumption dropped about 44 percent per PC. The software paid for itself in less than a year and the city expects to save tens of thousands of dollars annually going forward.

When it comes to new equipment, the potential to save energy takes several forms. Intel, AMD, and other microchip makers have developed new processors that consume far less electricity. Last July the government’s Energy Star rating program was extended to include computers. And the push for energy efficiency has breathed new life into an old idea: the use of “dumb terminals,” a.k.a. thin clients, in lieu of fully functional PCs.

Thin clients consume about one-tenth the power of PCs; they can be networked by the hundreds to a server that can host most of their applications.

If the energy-environmental calculus has breathed new life into thin clients, it may do the same for the always-a-day-away fortunes of videoconferencing. Health insurer WellPoint has instituted a policy that encourages employees to use videoconferencing instead of travel. Dave McDonald, vice president of infrastructure support services, says the 110 endpoints the firm has installed will clock 25,000 hours of videoconferencing this year. That will eliminate 4,500 tons of CO2 emissions (from reduced airplane and car travel).

Verizon is also pushing Web- and videoconferencing. When employees sign into the company’s travel-planning site they are prompted several times to consider meeting via conferencing technologies instead. One business group saw a 20 percent increase in the use of teleconferencing in the first half of this year.

Yasmin Ghahremani writes about business and technology from New York.

Fine Time for Recycling

Bringing in new, energy-efficient IT gear invariably means that the old boxes will need to go, a task that’s far from easy. Many laws and regulations have recently been passed regarding the proper disposal of IT equipment. As a result, a new mini-industry has emerged, with specialty firms and major IT-hardware vendors all competing to haul it away. Last year Marriott recycled 389,000 pounds of outdated IT gear in the United States and Canada using an asset disposition company, Intechra, which monitors the patchwork of state, national, and international laws that govern recycling. While regulatory compliance requirements give firms lots of motivation to properly recycle IT gear, there can be a modest payback via revenue-sharing agreements with vendors; they refurbish and resell some hardware. — Y.G.