How to Go Green without Seeing Red, Part I

by Bill Blausey, SVP and CIO of Eaton Corp.

Green IT is without question one of the one of the most sweeping trends in IT today. The industry enthusiasm isn’t hard to explain. The recent recession and its after effects, along with rising energy costs, have made reducing capital and operating expenditures a higher priority than ever. Properly conceived and implemented, green IT efforts can help organizations save money, comply with increasingly strict environmental regulations and enhance their public image.

Yet adopting green intentions is often simpler than acting on them. Here’s a few reasons why:

Friction with corporate objectives – Most executives, both inside and outside IT, recognize the importance of environmental responsibility. Yet at the end of the day, their chief responsibility is to serve the interests of the company’s owners by maximizing profitability. Unfortunately, that duty and the desire to be green are to some extent inherently at odds with one another. After all, the greenest possible data center would contain no servers, yet a company with no servers would have little prospect of success.

Thus, green IT isn’t something that companies simply adopt or don’t adopt. Creating a green data center involves striking an appropriate balance between conserving energy and driving revenue. That can be a far more demanding exercise than many decision-makers anticipate.

Friction with competing priorities – Going green would be much simpler if only it were free. In reality, however, every green IT project has a price tag. With capital budgets stretched thinner than ever, organizations must weigh green IT projects against other potential investments.

For example, assuming you can’t afford both, should you install solar panels on the roof of your data center or open a new branch office? Faced with decisions like that, businesses often table green projects in favor of alternative ventures with a greater or more immediate potential impact on revenues and profits.

Unfunded mandates – Green IT efforts often impose unfunded financial burdens on data centers. These sometimes result from senior managers announcing a corporate sustainability initiative and then failing to increase the IT and facilities budgets accordingly. In other cases, however, government environmental regulations are to blame.

For example, the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment legislation, which officially went into effect on April 1, 2010, requires roughly 5,000 of the nation’s largest organizations to measure and report their annual energy consumption. Yet few companies are equipped to assemble such figures at present. Acquiring that capability will cost money that many British data center managers will have to take from existing capital budgets.

UK companies won’t be the only ones in that situation for long. With concern over global warming on the rise, businesses in the U.S. and elsewhere are likely to face similar unfunded regulatory mandates soon.

Misaligned departmental priorities – At most companies, the IT department is responsible for purchasing hardware but the facilities department pays the power bill. As a result, IT managers often choose the most affordably-priced products rather than the most energy-efficient ones, which tend to be more expensive.

A similar dynamic discourages IT departments from adopting renewable energy sources and other green power technologies because maintaining availability is one of IT’s most important jobs. But green solutions may add complexity (and therefore risk) to IT operations. Thus, IT decision-makers have little incentive to implement green power technologies.

If everything goes right, the facilities department will get most of the credit for lowering energy spend. If anything goes wrong, however, IT will receive all of the blame for increasing downtime.

Viable green solutions – While there are many sound reasons for wanting a greener data center, then, realizing that goal cost effectively is easier said than done. Just the same, most organizations can benefit from at least some green strategies in some circumstances without compromising corporate growth or IT reliability.

Part II of this article, out Monday Sept. 26, will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the most viable green solutions available today.

William W. Blausey Jr. is SVP and CIO for Eaton Corporation, an $11.9 billion global technology leader in electrical components and systems for power quality, distribution and control. In this role, Blausey is responsible for the enterprise IT strategy and execution. Blausey assumed his current position in January 2006 after serving as VP, Information Technology, for Eaton’s Fluid Power Group since 2001. Blausey earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and is located in Cleveland, Ohio.