Renault F1 adopts green IT for cost savings

Fernando Alonso’s engines roared as he crossed the finish line at the Brazilian Grand Prix, the result of strategic pit stops and skilled driving resulting in a second place finish for his Renault team – at that moment, the notion that the 20 cars racing had emitted nearly 10,000 kg of carbon emissions probably never crossed his mind.

But they did cross the mind of Graeme Hackland, the manager of IT for Renault’s Formula One (F1) racing team. In a time when the green movement is gaining momentum and corporations are feeling pressure to clean up any polluting image, even this car racing sport is looking to boost its image with green efforts. That’s not easy for a sport that has always been synonymous with power, and not so much with efficiency.

Each of the competing F1 teams uses an estimated 200,000 liters of fuel for testing and racing each season. Aside from actually running the cars, there’s all that other pollution that comes as a result of being a sport that’s just as popular as the Olympics or World Cup soccer. The fans must get to the stadium, the cars must be transported around the world, and each team must run data centres – with the sole purpose of honing their vehicle to be as fast as possible.

Renault is looking to it’s IT department to be the champion of green initiatives, Hackland says. But the motivations are hardly altruistic.

“The company wouldn’t be going down this road if there weren’t cost-savings,” he says. “If it put us at a competitive disadvantage, we wouldn’t be doing it. But if we can do a better job at it than other teams, we can actually be more competitive.”

Hackland spoke about his department’s efforts in a Web conference organized by security vendor Symantec Corp. on Nov. 24. Symantec is encountering more customers who are recognizing the more pragmatic aspects of investing in green IT, according to Jose Iglesias, vice president of global solutions at the company.

“Customers have an opportunity to not only do what’s right, but to save money,” he says. “People often look at the label of green IT and think it is a frivolous effort given today’s economic pressures. But it’s actually a great way to save money at the same time.”

Besides, if Renault F1 can make an attempt, then anyone can. “One of the most un-green type of industries around is auto-racing,” he says.

The opportunity to change their tune came when Renault needed a new data centre one year ago. A previously built data centre hadn’t factored green IT into the equation, but the new one would use it as a guiding principle. Everything from the design of the building to the packaging and disposal method of its components would be considered.

“Within 12 months, I saw a real serious change in how we approached the green question,” Hackland says. “We’ve seen a big shift in our thinking in terms of our obligation to the environment.”

It didn’t hurt that the England factory would share a piece of land north of Oxford that was protected for scientific reasons. Alongside the company’s data centre live rare varieties of orchids and exotic animal species.

Renault put in place an APC InfrastruXure architecture that was 25 per cent more energy efficient than old “forced air” models of cooling. The IT department also looked at energy related benchmarks when making a purchasing decision as well as where the hardware went to die at the end of its life cycle.

Using Symantec Cluster Server, the company was able to consolidate servers and get rid of under-used equipment. The habits and routines of office staff also had to be tweaked.

“We used to have people flying back and forth between our factory in England and the factory in France weekly,” Hackland says. “Now we have some videoconferencing technology to make them feel like they’re sitting in the same room.”

Not only is the construction of the data centre an effort to be green, but its purpose is too. It is meant to replace real track testing sessions with a simulation.

“What we’ve essentially done is built a supercomputer that’s serving as a virtual wind tunnel,” the IT manager says. “That’s saving 25 per cent of the energy than our actual wind tunnel.”

Aside from the cost savings, many companies are looking to polish their reputation with some green actions, according to Cecily Joseph, director of corporate responsibility at Symantec.

“We’re starting to see more demand from customers coming down through their supply chain,” she says. “They asking us to provide energy use and carbon emission information.”

Company stakeholders such as employees, investors, and customers are demanding the change take place, she adds.

But for Renault F1, some IT efforts aren’t likely to paint the company green in the eyes of many. Not when so much of the carbon footprint results from the actual racing events.

Even Hackland admits that IT accounts for a little more than two per cent of emissions at Renault F1. But he’s not sure exactly how much that amount is.

F1 is taking other steps towards a greener sport. Next season, it will be mandatory to use technology on every race car that captures heat from the engines, and transfers kinetic energy from deceleration into powering the car.

Not that Alonso will be slowing down much as he puts pedal to the metal and zips through the checkered flag in 2009.

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