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Green IT overpitched by vendors; CIOs beware

Virtualization isn't the only technology with a green marketing pitch, but CIOs can ask the right questions to make sure they get the real deal.

So many product pitches. So many shades of green.

Whether it's to cut the energy bill or improve corporate responsibility or both, CIOs are considering green when making purchasing decisions.

And marketers know it. Better-known green technologies, such as collaboration software and virtualized servers, continue to sell well and are becoming more prevalent in the workplace.

But now CIOs may see green sales pitches on all types of products, including products that were traditionally thought of as out of reach for most midmarket companies, such as videoconferencing equipment and thin-client desktops, said Christopher Mines, senior vice president at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Along with that comes the challenge of separating the truly green products from the me-toos. And until there is a standard to measure energy efficiency in the data center, CIOs will just have to ask good questions and use common sense.

"I think in this case much of what is being promoted as green or energy reducing or energy efficient or energy saving or whatever guise it goes under, much of it is being promoted by marketing people taking the same products in many cases and suddenly marketing as 'Well, this will help,'" said Robert McFarlane, principal data center consultant at New York-based Shen Milsom & Wilke Inc. "Of course some of them may, some of them do."

McFarlane said CIOs and IT managers are growing to accept and even pay a bit more for energy-saving products, sometimes on instruction from their CEOs. But he added that many data centers already have the right equipment that will help them save energy. Servers just need different configurations.

"If we just apply the products we have correctly, use them correctly, design and operate them correctly, we can save a lot of energy right off the top," McFarlane said.

But in many cases, IT staff members don't want to configure a green data center, be it because of concerns about server performance or simply a lack of caring about an energy bill not paid out of the IT budget.

And outside the data center, just about any product IT might be inclined to buy can be found in a green form, regardless of whether it really will save energy.

Mines, in a report this month, said thin-client and videoconferencing tools are two technologies that may see a "nudge" as energy conservation becomes a factor in IT purchasing decisions. He emphasized in an interview that he isn't predicting massive success.

But videoconferencing, always a clunky, blinking-VCR-clock type of technology, is getting better, Mines said. Systems can now plug in to a shared IP network and are becoming somewhat easier to use.

"It's not point and click, not just yet, but we're on the way to … ease of use," Mines said. Using a videoconferencing system won't cut the energy bill much, but those companies that emphasize corporate responsibility might see the less-tangible benefit by reducing driving and flight activity.

And thin-client computers, which essentially share processor power, will probably get a closer look from CIOs as well. They work best when banks of computers are being used for a single purpose, so they won't be perfect for every company, but they do save on the energy bill.

But as all these supposedly environmentally friendly products show up wearing green, Mines said he believes CIOs will need to thoroughly examine both the products and the companies they come from.

If we just apply the products we have correctly, use them correctly, design and operate them correctly, we can save a lot of energy right off the top.

Robert McFarlane, principal data center consultant, Shen, Milsom & Wilke Inc.

"You want to make this distinction between green product and green supplier and make it clear in the RFP process that you're interested in both those things," Mines said. He suggests that CIOs ask about a product's history, looking for hints in the story of its inception, how it is manufactured, packaged and shipped and how it will be disposed of when it reaches the end of its life span.

At the same time, Mines is advising marketers to prepare pitches that showcase not just their products, but also their companies' overall commitment to green principles.

Generally speaking, Mines said he believes the IT industry has done an admirable job of developing products that lower energy consumption and encourage a reduction in carbon emissions.

But there are exceptions.

"Some kind of anonymous product is just newly tied up with a green ribbon around it," Mines said. "That's what creates the risk for the entire industry, folks that are just jumping on the bandwagon here. What's new in the product? What's different about the position of the product or the position of the company?"

McFarlane, who teaches an online course for Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., agreed. Until the Environmental Protection Agency manages an energy ratings system for servers and other IT equipment, there is really only one way to make a green purchase.

"I tell my students that you have to use some common sense," McFarlane said. "If it isn't logical, if it doesn't make any sense, then at least question it in great depth."

"How is it different from three years ago?" he asked. "And how is it going to save you money?"

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