Earth Day Report: Green Computing Beyond the Datacenter

With increasing frequency, CIOs are being asked to play a major role in meeting the challenges of sustainability, reducing energy consumption and CO2 emissions and other ecological issues that have become the focus of corporate and public attention. This is appropriate, because IT organizations are clearly part of the problem. But they are also uniquely equipped to be part of the solution, not only in their own domain of datacenters, desktops and mobile deployments, but throughout the entire organization. In this post I’ll touch on some of the less obvious ways CIOs can contribute to corporate sustainability, as well as those that reside in their own domain.

Green Opportunities Beyond the Datacenter

CIOs who want to make a green contribution beyond the management of IT assets can begin by reaching out to fellow executives and determining where there are energy-related issues that technology can address. Most CIOs have relationships with major vendors with applications that can directly or indirectly help reduce energy consumption in multiple areas of operation, but their peers are often totally unaware that these solutions exist. The trick is connecting the problem with the solution. Here are a few specific areas of operation that may be promising.

Facilities Management –Many CIOs have already cooperated with facilities management on the issue of data center energy consumption, but there are a host of other problems where information technology can increase the efficiency of the facilities management function and thereby reduce energy consumption. For example, predictive analytics based on historical data (assuming the data is clean and accurate) can determine what system modifications and behaviors will have the maximum impact on energy efficiency, so organizations can be assured that the dollars dedicated to green initiatives are being well spent.

Logistics –The transportation of any item from point A to point B requires energy, and making transportation more efficient has a direct impact on energy consumption. In many companies, substantial improvements are possible through technology. There are a variety of enterprise applications to help companies develop more efficient transportation of goods across entire supply chains, improving everything from delivery routes to the time trucks spend idling their engines. Now that GPS monitoring is ubiquitous, systems can also be developed to monitor events in real time and make more efficient use of vehicles.

Telecommuting –Encouraging employees to work from home, whether full-time or part time, can have a substantial positive effect on a company’s environmental impact – and bottom line. For example, as organizations encourage employees to work remotely there are significant benefits including reduced leasing costs, furniture, cubical rental costs, power, water and so on. The absence of vehicles on the road every morning and evening makes a major contribution to energy savings and greenhouse gas reduction.

Paperless Transactions –Anytime the use of paper can be eliminated from a transaction, the environment and the company doing the elimination both win. The fundamental question to ask is “Do we really need to mail our customer/vendor/channel partner this invoice/statement/notification?” In many cases, the answer is no. Financial services companies have taken a leadership role in this area, working to eliminate paper wherever possible (and touting the environmental benefits of this strategy to their advantage). In many other companies, however, paper transactions continue to be the norm – usually due to habit, rather than any real business benefit.

The ongoing greening of IT

As I previously mentioned, these examples of areas where proactive CIOs can look outside of their domain for opportunities to launch green initiatives. But no review of the green opportunities for CIOs would be complete without at least touching on the opportunities within the IT organization, even though many are well known to CIOs.

According to the Department of Energy, datacenters are responsible for three percent of total U.S. Energy consumption, and that figure is expected to double by 2015 -– which amounts to $7.4 billion worth of energy. Right now, the average 125,000 square foot data center has an annual energy bill of roughly $3 million. These economic measures translate into millions upon millions of kilowatt hours of electricity, the production of which releases huge amounts of CO2, the primary “greenhouse gas.” In other words, IT really is a substantial part of the problem. But the good news is CIOS can be and are part of the solution.

Virtualization – Most IT organizations have vigorous virtualization initiatives in full swing already.

Server refresh –Although it sounds like a sales pitch, the math for replacing older servers with new, energy-efficient models is genuinely compelling. Each generation has new features that support energy efficiency, and these extend down to the chip level.

Attention to detail –There are numerous best practices that have a small impact in themselves, but deliver significant power savings in the aggregate. They range from the arcane (power distribution unit sizing) to the obvious (hot and cold aisles in datacenters) to the adventurous (using ambient air to supplement data center cooling systems in the winter). These best practices are for the most part well known, and when staff are incented to save energy, as opposed to merely “keeping the lights on,” they will be implemented.

Desktop Management –Many organizations operate literally thousands of desktop computers with little or no attention to energy management. Simply making sure that standard, built-in power-saving options are properly set can by itself result in significant energy savings. In addition, there are applications available that enable even greater control – and greater savings

Data management –This is the least obvious strategy, but for some companies it could pay dividends. Numerous solutions are available (including solutions from my company) that can significantly reduce the volume of data that needs to be stored, through techniques such as retirement, compression, de-duping and the like. Less data means fewer storage devices, less electricity consumed, and fewer non-renewable resources lost.

The cost factor

One of the most attractive aspects of projects that improve energy efficiency is that they often have an attractive ROI. In contrast to many environmental initiatives related to pollution, reducing energy consumption almost always has a quantifiable financial benefit. This is important. Projects that help improve the environment and the bottom line are rare. Earth Day should be seen as a reminder that looking for these opportunities can pay off in more ways than one.

Chris Boorman is the Chief Marketing Officer at leading data integration vendor Informatica. Follow him on Twitter @chboorman.