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Green IT in the data center: Plenty of talk, not much walk

A new survey from Symantec of 800 data managers worldwide shows that protecting the environment is low on the totem pole for most data center stewards.

Talk is cheap -- which may be why managers at a majority of the world's largest companies say they're considering green data centers, but few are actually going green.

A worldwide survey from Symantec Corp. of data center managers at large companies and public-sector institutions found that while 71% of respondents expressed an interest in adopting green IT practices, only 12% are implementing green data centers. A minuscule 2% reported they have completed green IT data centers, while 29% haven't even considered implementing green data centers.

Moreover, among the organizations that are or have considered implementing green data centers, the main motive is not protecting the environment, the survey found: It's strictly business.

For example, when data center managers were asked what role energy efficiency played in their decision to implement server consolidation and server virtualization -- the two most popular green technologies -- only 10% cited it as the most important reason. The vast majority, 68%, cited it as one of many reasons, and 10% said energy efficiency did not factor into the decision at all. This, despite the fact that 57% of data center managers consider themselves "advocates of greener data centers," according to the survey.

"Cost savings and constant business pressure to maintain performance and meet increasingly aggressive service-level agreements are the main reasons for implementing many green strategies," said Matt Fairbanks, senior director of product marketing for Symantec's data center management group.

"For them it is beyond environmental concerns -- it is about meeting business goals and reducing costs," he said.

The survey, commissioned by Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec and conducted by Ziff Davis Enterprise, is based on responses from 800 data center managers of Global 2,000 companies and other large organizations. The average annual IT budget of the U.S. respondents was $71 million; non-U.S. companies spent an average $54 million annually on IT. The study defines green data center as "having increased efficiencies in energy usage, power consumption, space utilization and reduction of polluting energy sources."

A will, but few incentives

The disjunction between words and actions when it comes to green IT shows up in other studies. A recent survey by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., for example, found that while 85% of IT procurement and operations professionals in U.S. companies believe environmental concerns are important in planning their IT operations, almost as many -- 78% -- said green IT has not been written into their evaluation and selection criteria for IT systems and devices.

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

They can see that there is more risk in doing nothing than doing something.

Simon Mingay, analyst, Gartner Inc.

Simon Mingay, who covers green IT at Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy Gartner Inc., agreed. "The harsh reality is that the media is way ahead of this compared to business," he said. And boardroom policy is ahead of practice. CEOs at large corporations in the public eye increasingly understand the political, if not the environmental expediency of going green, Mingay said, injecting promises to reduce their carbon footprint into corporate social responsibility policies.

"They can see that there is more risk in doing nothing than doing something. That is a big change from where we were 12 months ago," he said. "But what does that mean for the guys in the middle, who are stuck with figuring this out without any additional resources or spending any more money?"

Even within IT, there is a disconnect between the executive ranks and the people on the front lines of the energy crisis, King said. In general, IT decisions are based on computing demands, he said, while data 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, because IT typically doesn't deal with the rising electricity bills at the facility. 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.

But the light bulb will go off, so to speak, sooner rather than later, according to Gartner. The consultancy is predicting that by 2009, one-third of IT organizations will include environmental sustainability in their top-six buying criteria for their hardware and services vendors.

And there is no question that the groundswell for green IT in the data center is growing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sounded the alarm in a report this summer: If left unchecked, energy consumption by U.S. data centers and servers will nearly double by 2011, accounting for 2.5 % of U.S. electricity consumption.

The Green Grid, a nonprofit consortium of IT companies formed in 2007, unveiled in August its roadmap for developing and promoting energy efficiency in the data center. Dell Inc. CEO Michael Dell got spontaneous applause at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Fla., in October when he told a room of 6,000 technocrats that IT can lead the charge in reducing carbon emissions at their companies.

The rich get greener

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Symantec survey found a correlation between wealth and green IT. Organizations with larger data center budgets implement green data center strategies more frequently than those with smaller budgets. They are more likely to implement server virtualization, server consolidation, data deduplication and storage virtualization, and to use disk for backup than their less-green counterparts.

Server consolidation and virtualization implementations are more prevalent in U.S.-based companies in general, and surpass implementations in other parts of the world. (Even among U.S. data centers defined as "not green," 38% have consolidated servers and 36% adopted server virtualization, the survey found.)

However, while fewer Asia-Pacific and Japanese organizations are implementing consolidation and virtualization in their data centers, the majority of IT managers from this region who do (88%) cite energy consumption and energy reduction as the primary reason.

Slightly more than a third of companies based in the U.S. said they have green policies, while almost 60% of companies from Asia-Pacific countries and Japan, and 55% of European companies, have them. According to the research, companies from China, Germany, Mexico, Canada, India and South Korea are more likely to have green data center policies than not.

Shamus McGillicuddy contributed to this report. Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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