October 26, 2009

Green IT: One Path to a Green Recovery

[This post first appeared on a Climate Savers Computing Initiative site. I'll skip the general intro to the greening topic from the original...]

...Five areas of the business are ripe for quick paybacks from green thinking: facilities (heating, cooling and lighting), fleet and distribution, waste, telework, and IT. Let's look at IT specifically and why companies are still going green.

When industry analyst Gartner Group estimated that information and communications technology was responsible for 2 percent of global carbon emissions — equal to the entire aviation industry — most people outside the IT world (and many inside it) were shocked. At the core of these numbers lies the shocking inefficiency of data centers.

Of all the energy going into a modern server farm, IBM estimates, less than 4 percent actually processes something you know, what the room was built for. The other 96 percent of electrons are lost at three stages: (1) cooling the room itself, (2) cooling the stacks or "blades" of servers, and (3) keeping idle machines humming. Most of this energy is wasted and costs real money. In recent years, the share of a data center's variable cost going to energy has grown fast. What was once a tiny part of the budget is now 40 or 50 percent of the operating cost. Over the life of a server, you can easily spend twice as much on electricity as on the capital cost of the server itself.

In response, the competition has been fierce to tackle those three stages of the problem and find ways to slash the energy budget. First, look at the design of the data center itself. One of my favorite "head-slapper" strategies in all of the greening movement is the use of outside air economization — that is, effectively opening the door and letting hot air out rather than cooling it — which Intel estimates can save $3 million in a 10 mega-watt data center.

Second, companies are looking at the server hardware. They're shutting down orphaned systems — Sun discovered during its "Bring Out Your Dead" day that 4,100 of its servers were unused, but plugged in sucking energy. But sometimes, as the Wall Street Journal suggested earlier this year, "the smartest thing to do is invest in new, more efficient systems." One company, Fair Isaac Corporation, bought new, more efficient servers and cut the total number in its data processing center in half. This requires some capital expenditure, but the paybacks can be fast.

Third, software companies are vying to help handle server loads and increase the average 20 percent utilization rate (meaning, 4 of 5 servers are basically idle, waiting for peak loads). The buzzword is virtualization, or using software to create pseudoservers that run in parallel on the same physical server and use all that idle processing power.

For companies using all of these tactics, such as Microsoft, newer datacenters can use 50 percent less energy than ones built just a few years ago. And that's just the large IT systems. Many organizations are now utilizing software to control all the PCs sitting on desks, putting them to sleep overnight and often saving millions. None of this pressure to cut back on IT energy and cost is going away. Forrester reported in January 2009 that 60 percent of IT managers are using green criteria in their procurement decisions and that even in tight times more managers are accelerating green IT efforts than slowing them down.

But what's the most powerful thing you can do to reduce IT energy use? Every time I speak to tech companies or sustainability execs, I hear one theme over and over: The people who create the energy use don't have a clue how much it's costing. The prescription: Add the power bill to the CIO's budget.

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