Green computing slow to take hold in U.S. businesses

Just about every business wants to be environmentally friendly, but being green isn't cheap and it isn't necessarily easy -- or is it?

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CIOs are thinking green. After all, how can they avoid it? From ex-presidential candidates to movie stars to major U.S. businesses, it seems like everybody who's anybody is on the environmentally friendly bandwagon.

But despite the fact that businesses acknowledge the issue's importance, very few CIOs are actually going green.

We just try to reuse older equipment as much as possible. Rather than purchase new workstations and laptops, we pay for refurbished equipment.
Jon Beyer
co-founder and CIOTerraCycle Inc.
A recent survey by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. found that 85% of IT procurement and operations professionals in U.S. companies said environmental concerns were important in planning their IT operations. And 72% said they were aware of vendors' efforts to promote "green IT" in the design, operation and disposal of their products.

However, 78% of respondents said green IT has not been written into their evaluation and selection criteria for IT systems and devices. Green IT is Forrester's term for vendor and IT organizations' efforts to reduce the environmentally harmful impact that technology has on the environment, while simultaneously realizing better efficiency and reduced costs.

"That's not an unusual type of behavioral model to see," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Research in Hayward, Calif., said of CIO inaction. "Frankly, I think we're in sort of the early days of this."

Ask 10 CIOs what being green actually means, and you'll get 10 answers. For some, it involves buying technology that is more energy efficient, and lowering power and cooling costs. For others, it means buying hardware from environmentally friendly vendors, disposing of old hardware in a responsible way, or purchasing renewable energy to power technology.

King said the lack of action on green technology can be traced in part to the disconnect between IT and facilities management. In general, IT makes decisions based on computing demands, while facilities management makes decisions based on the cost and availability of energy. CIOs know green technology is important, but they may not see it as urgent, the way a facilities manager may, because IT doesn't see the rising electricity bills. In fact, green technology often doesn't become an imperative until power and cooling issues prevent CIOs from putting more servers in a data center.

The idea of green computing isn't new. As early as 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated the voluntary labeling program known as Energy Star in an effort to promote energy efficiency in computer hardware.

Since then there have been numerous initiatives to promote energy efficiency and environmentally friendly computing, including the recent U.S. House of Representatives bill requiring the EPA to study energy consumption and promote energy efficiency in data centers.

Energy-saving tips you can follow now
  • Power down the CPU and all peripherals during extended periods of inactivity.
  • Try to do computer-related tasks during contiguous, intensive blocks of time, leaving hardware off at other times.
  • Power up and power down energy-intensive peripherals such as laser printers according to need.
  • Use LCD monitors rather than CRT monitors.
  • Use notebook computers rather than desktop computers whenever possible.
  • Use the power-management features to turn off hard drives and displays after several minutes of inactivity.
  • Minimize the use of paper and properly recycle waste paper.
  • Dispose of e-waste according to federal, state and local regulations.
  • Employ alternative energy sources for computing workstations, servers, networks and data centers.
  • Source: Whatis.com

    Cost is the No. 1 reason cited by most businesses that either prevents them or spurs them into going green. Unless there's an equipment refresh or a data center design on the docket, most businesses won't swap things out just for the sake of a social conscience, say some experts. But when the rising costs of power starts to take a huge chunk out of their budgets, organizations start taking green computing seriously, according to Forrester's research.

    Combine cost savings and concern for the environment, and that's the ticket to change.

    "They are both of equal importance to me," said George Bock, senior director of IT at Sole Technology Inc. "We're always about saving dollars. But with the added focus we are putting on every level of the company for being a green company, we are all driving in that direction." Bock's CEO has dictated that his company incorporate green thinking into everything it does, "from our products, to solar panels on our building, to waterless urinals in the bathrooms."

    The Lake Forest, Calif.-based, $200 million manufacturer of sports apparel and footwear recently added an environmental affairs manager who will examine the environmental impact of the entire company. Once his company gets that assessment, Bock said he believes his IT organization will dive into green technology.

    Some businesses are waiting for an all-in-one green solution -- a magic bullet -- but that's unrealistic, experts say. King said so far, most efforts on green technology have focused on point solutions like more energy-efficient processors or more efficient servers.

    "In order to approach the situation efficiently and find a corrected or ideal path, it requires companies to approach this on a really systemic basis," King said. "Low-energy servers aren't going to fix it. Low-energy processors aren't going to fix it. Improving efficiency of power and cooling won't fix it. It's a combination of all these factors, when aggregated together, that is going to have an impact. This requires companies to break down walls in decision-making and get different parts of the company to talk about this stuff."

    Incremental change, immediate payback

    Experts say every little bit helps, and that includes the keystone of environmental friendliness -- recycling.

    Jon Beyer, cofounder and CIO of TerraCycle Inc., a small Trenton, N.J.-based manufacturer of plant food, says his company's entire mission is to be green. The company harvests worm waste to create plant food and then sells it in recycled soda bottles. That corporate mission extends to his IT organization.

    "We just try to reuse older equipment as much as possible," Beyer said. "Rather than purchase new workstations and laptops, we pay for refurbished equipment. We're fairly small now, so we are able to do that. As we continue to grow, I like to think we can continue to do that."

    Beyer said some larger companies may not want to use older equipment, but there are incremental ways for them to be green as well. He said they could transition to using more thin clients instead of desktops.

    "A thin client uses 15 watts of energy instead of 150 watts for workstations," he said.

    Indeed, King said incremental change can work for those companies that don't have a lot of money to spend on big, comprehensive solutions. Server virtualization, for instance, is a big step toward going green, he said.

    "VMware is great," King said. "It's a technology that can be leveraged across existing servers as well as new boxes. It's not a technology that requires a company to go in and do a complete rip and replace. It's an incremental solution that has an incremental but very immediate payback."

    Vendor bandwagon

    IBM this month announced a new $1 billion initiative, dubbed "Project Big Green," which will offer a comprehensive suite of services and technologies that will enable companies to assess environmental problems in their data centers and how they can go about fixing them.

    Steve Sams, IBM vice president of Global Site and Facilities Services, said the lack of products on the market was part of why IBM was launching Big Green.

    "There is awareness at some levels, but clients aren't taking action," Sams said. "Clients don't have the facts. They know their energy bill is increasing, but they haven't done a projection. It's caught them by surprise. And they might not know how their data centers compare with others for energy efficiency. There are no tools to give them that assessment of what the problems are and what actions they can take to resolve them. I don't think anybody believed there was a set of tools and capabilities available today that can significantly improve this problem."

    More on Green IT
    HP sees green in energy efficiency

    Green Grid tackles how to measure power usage

    Sun eco-evangelist addresses adapt center energy drain
    IBM's Big Green includes five stages of greening the data center. It combines services and new technologies aimed at diagnosing power management and cooling problems, designing and building new or updated data centers, virtualizing infrastructure, managing power consumption actively with software and cooling the data center with new liquid cooling products.

    IBM isn't the first vendor to peddle green technology. In March, Hewlett-Packard Co. said it will roll out several green initiatives, including more efficient personal computers, energy management software for data centers, and more eco-friendly packaging for print cartridges.

    Sun Microsystems Inc. appointed David Douglas to the new position of vice president of Eco-Responsibility last year and continues to roll out green technology.

    Much of what these companies are pitching is more marketing than actual product, say industry observers. But if it does nothing else, it brings the idea of green computing to the forefront. Still, King said he's impressed with IBM's new Big Green initiative and says it's something completely new.

    "I have not heard of any other systems vendor doing anything quite this comprehensive," King said. "I don't see anybody else out there that's really kind of taking this end-to-end look at things. They've come up with some great technologies, and [data centers] is something that they've got a great deal of experience in as well."

    Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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