A green IT checklist: From first steps to stretch goals

Chief Technology Officer Arvind Thapar wants to bring new green technology to his company, but his proposed initiative — installing wind turbines to generate power — is decidedly outside the usual realm of IT.

Thapar is still preparing his formal pitch to First National of Nebraska, the Omaha-based financial services firm where he works, but he says initial reaction to the idea has been positive — something he wouldn’t have expected five years ago.

His experience clearly shows the shifting winds of our times.

Leading businesses are looking for ways to get green. Some are motivated by concern for the planet; others by the cost savings or the marketing advantages that can come from more environmentally friendly policies.

Often, they’re driven by a combination of factors. In any event, IT has a key role to play.
Here’s a checklist of suggestions from Computerworld‘s Computerworld‘s Top Green IT 2008 winners, to get you started and keep you moving in a greener direction.

Low-Hanging Green Fruit

1. Limit paper use

The paperless office is still a dream. Each year, the U.S. goes through 4 million tons of copy paper, 2 billion books, 350 million magazines and 25 billion newspapers. This can lead to deforestation, and the paper manufacturing process produces carbon dioxide.

But IT can take simple steps to cut corporate paper use.

London-based BT Group PLC moved printers from desktops to central locations. That forces workers to get up when they want to retrieve printed material — which helps deter excess printing, says Donna Young, BT Group’s head of environmental climate change. The IT staff also set printers to automatically use both sides of the paper.

Other World Computing in Woodstock, Ill., controls paper use by sending managers reports of what’s been printed so they can spot excess usage and try to curb it, says CEO Larry O’Connor.

2. Buy renewable energy

This is an easy one: Contact your power company to see if it offers electricity from renewable energy sources (many do), such as wind or solar power, says Austin Energy CIO Andres Carvallo.

There are a few caveats, though. Unless you can persuade the facilities folks to get green energy for the entire company, you might have to limit it to just the data center (where CIOs usually have more control over power supplies). You’ll also have to persuade the finance people to shell out a little extra money, at least to start.

Carvallo says green energy usually carries a premium — Austin Energy charges 20% extra for it — although many power companies, including his own, lock in the price for multiple years, which means your green power could soon be cheaper than electricity from conventional sources.

3. Use power management tools

The nonprofit Climate Savers Computing Initiative estimates that using power management features for desktop computers can save more than 600 kilowatt-hours of electricity and about $60 annually in energy costs per computer.

Multiply that by the hundreds — or thousands — of PCs you have in your IT shop, and you can see how this simple action can turn into a lot of green.
To maximize energy savings, the Climate Savers Computing Initiative recommends putting monitors and hard drives to sleep after 15 minutes or less of idleness, with system standby occurring after 30 minutes.

Next Steps

1. Virtualize.

Virtualization can yield significant savings, says Larry Vertal, a member of the board of directors at The Green Grid, a global consortium dedicated to developing and promoting energy efficiency for data centers and information service delivery. He says at least one Green Grid member saw energy savings of 70%.

Norm Fjeldheim, senior vice president and CIO at Qualcomm Inc. in San Diego, embarked on virtualization of his data center in 2003, giving his team just $250,000 to fund the project.
At the time, the company had about 450 servers. Five years later, with virtualization in the data center about 70% complete, the company has 420 servers running more applications and serving more workers.

Fjeldheim estimates that virtualization has saved about $15 million in avoided capital costs and about $4million to $5 million in power costs because of decreased energy demands.
Although virtualization has clear green benefits, it’s challenging to implement. “There is a skill set barrier and a cultural barrier to entry,” says Daniel Blanchard, vice president of enterprise operations at Marriott International Inc.

“Many [business] people want their own system, and they don’t want to share with anybody else.” Marriott’s IT shop has implemented virtualization projects in part because of the green benefits, he says.

2. Facilitate telecommuting

Technology can eliminate a lot of daily commuting and travel requirements. But IT must provide the right tools, from at-home networking capabilities to audioconferencing and online collaboration systems.

At BT Group, those tools allow about 10% of employees to work full time from home and 70% to have flexible work arrangements, Young says.

The company also has invested in technologies for virtual meetings and collaboration, reducing the need for employees to travel between sites.

Young says these initiatives have prevented the production of 97,600 tons of carbon dioxide that commuting and traveling would have generated. (Company studies have also shown that the initiatives increased productivity by 21% and reduced sick time by 63%.)

3. Include green objectives in procurement policies

IT procurement policies have long specified product performance standards. It’s now time to add environmental standards to that list.

Fjeldheim tweaked his shop’s evaluation criteria several years ago, expanding financial considerations from purchase price to total cost of ownership. That means looking at a device’s total life cycle, power consumption, recycling costs and other environmental factors.

“That was a little bit of a mind shift for us, but when you start to think about it strategically, over the life of the product, it starts to be an easier decision, and it’s easier to sell to finance,” Fjeldheim explains.

Taking such action is easier now than ever, Carvallo adds, because vendors provide more details about their products’ environmental impact and energy requirements, and the federal Energy Star efficiency rating system now applies to computer equipment.

Stretch Goals

1. Get a better grip on data center demands

It’s no secret that data center cooling gobbles up energy. According the federal Data Center Energy Efficiency Program, data centers used 61 billion kWh of electricity in 2006 — double the amount used in 2000 and 1.5% of all the electricity consumed in the U.S.

Virtualization can help rein in those figures, but companies can go further by better monitoring and managing cooling requirements.

Working with computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units, Blanchard’s team measures temperatures across the data center to match cooling needs with cooling output.

This requires an investment of staff time, but there’s a good payoff: Blanchard says he has been able to turn off four of Marriott’s two-dozen CRAC units while turning up the temperature on other CRAC units by several degrees. This has cut power consumption by 7%, Blanchard says.

Marriott does this monitoring and adjustment manually, but its long-term goal is to automate the process.

2. Replace inefficient equipment

Marriott actively tracks the life cycle of its assets, so IT workers know when it’s costing more to run a particular asset than it would cost to buy and run something new.

“Across the board, newer equipment is more efficient than older equipment, so the stretch goal is to replace older equipment with newer pieces,” Blanchard says.

Achieving that goal can require some significant upfront investment, however, so you’ll need to know just how big your energy savings will be — in dollars, not just kilowatt-hours — if you want to sell this initiative to the finance people.

Make sure you’re combining new purchases with other energy-reducing and environmentally friendly initiatives, Blanchard says. For example, don’t just replace an old server with a newer model.

Though you’ll see savings from the exchange, you’ll maximize the return on your new equipment if it’s part of, say, a virtualization project.

3. Manage assets more aggressively

In a typical data center, no one knows what 10% to 14% of the servers are doing, so keeping better track of your assets and curbing unnecessary use can yield good savings, says Winston Bumpus, another Green Grid director.

That’s what BT Group did. It found that many of its workers had unsanctioned servers under their desks. “It was for a side project, and it made it a little easier for them,” Young says.

But those rogue servers were eating up energy needlessly because existing, sanctioned servers could have easily handled their workload.

The IT department has cracked down on unnecessary or inefficiently used equipment. For example, a cell phone charger that’s plugged in when the phone isn’t charging still draws power, as does an empty, unneeded server rack that’s still plugged in.

To reach its goals, the company has run three “energy challenges,” during which it rewards IT workers with up to $2,000 if they identify equipment that is running but not needed.

Long-Term Targets

1. Build green

When Monsanto Co. built its new data center at its campus in Creve Coeur, Mo., it wanted to be more than a technology leader; it wanted to be an environmental leader, too. So it earned Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) certification for the 40,000-square-foot facility.

This provides more than bragging rights. The new data center requires about 30% less energy than a conventionally designed one, says CIO Mark Showers.

The design incorporated energy-efficient elements such as natural light and multiple cooling options (including the use of naturally chilled outdoor air when possible). In addition, 10% of the data center’s power supply comes from renewable power sources.

Showers says it took time and planning to get to this point. For instance, the company had to consolidate applications over the past decade so all worldwide transactions would flow through the Creve Coeur site.

 And the decision to pay the extra costs — just under 5% of the $21 million total — for the LEED-level data center wasn’t taken lightly.

“But there was a sense that this was the right thing to do. We’re an agricultural company, and our business is about sustainable yields and food product, so it fit very cleanly and nicely into our culture,” Showers says.

2. Calculate and manage your energy needs

How efficient is your data center? If you don’t know, you’re not alone. But Bumpus says companies should strive to find out. “It’s an important measurement,” he says.

To begin to calculate efficiency, companies need to know how much power is required per transaction, Bumpus explains.

Companies also need to determine how much energy is used while servers are idle, he says, noting that most idle servers tend to consume 60% of the power required for peak workload. Such figures give you a baseline against which to set goals and judge progress.

As organizations get a better handle on data center efficiency and develop best practices and standards for achieving it, they can move to the next step, according to The Green Grid’s Vertal and Bumpus.

That entails using tools that dynamically manage the data center, moving workloads around (maybe even to other geographic sites), powering down machines that aren’t needed and automatically bringing up machines when they’re required.

“As we move to the next five years, data centers have to be more flexible and agile,” Vertal says

3. Adopt new technologies

Green-thinking companies should press vendors to deliver innovations such as water-cooled server racks for data centers and improvements in virtualization technology. And they should try greener options when available.

Marriott did. Its new Recovery and Development Center will be sited in Iron Mountain Inc.’s 145-acre underground facility in a naturally cooled limestone cave in western Pennsylvania.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can with the natural resources,” Blanchard says.

Blanchard acknowledges that major steps like that require fairly large investments of time and money, as well as a pioneering spirit. But he says companies need to embrace the next generation of technology if they want to build greener operations.

 

No-Brainers

Here are some green initiatives even lower than the low-hanging fruit:

  • Make recycling obvious. Put bins for paper, plastics, cans, etc., throughout the office so there’s no excuse for not recycling.
  • Reward workers who use the Shoe-Leather Express. Austin Energy gives $60 a month to employees who walk, bike or find other nonmotorized transportation to and from the office.
  • Recycle IT equipment. Give an employee the responsibility and it will happen.
  • Think before buying. Develop rigorous reviews and procurement policies to make sure you buy only what you need.

Green IT Resources

  • The Data Center Energy Profiler, or DC Pro, from the U.S. Department of Energy, is an online software tool that helps companies diagnose how energy is being used in their data centers and how they can save energy and money.
  • The Green Grid is a global consortium dedicated to advancing energy efficiency in data centers and business computing ecosystems.
  • The Climate Savers Computing Initiative is a nonprofit group of consumers, businesses and conservation organizations whose goal is to promote the development, deployment and adoption of smart technologies to both improve the efficiency of a computer’s power delivery and reduce energy consumption.
  • The Green Electronics Council promotes the effective design, manufacture, use and recovery of electronic products.
  • The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, is an environmental procurement tool to help institutional purchasers evaluate, compare and select desktop computers, notebook computers and monitors based on their environmental attributes.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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