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Five questions: What works and what doesn't in a green IT strategy

Four IT pros talk about how their companies are pursuing a green IT strategy, and offer plenty of tips and advice about what works and what doesn't.

Is server virtualization part of your green IT strategy? Are you taking credit for it?

Michael Swetz sure is. He's vice president for global infrastructure services at State Street Corp. in Boston, running the financial services provider's energy efficiency and sustainability program across all technology groups. Virtualizing the thousands of servers used at State Street represents "$3.5 million in cost avoidance per year," he said.

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Double-sided printing is probably not going to save the planet, but it allowed the small IT team at Timberland Co. to save a tree last year, according to Rosalee Hermens, former CIO at the Stratham, N.H.-based outdoor apparel and footwear company. At Timberland, where environmental stewardship is a big part of the marketing message, every tree spared adds business value.

There is scarcely a company today that doesn't pay lip service to green IT. With carbon cap legislation looming, many companies have moved past slogans to figuring out how to develop a green IT strategy that improves energy efficiency and adds business value. But the quest is not easy, as Swetz and Hermens made clear in a recent green IT panel hosted by the Boston chapter of the Society for Information Management and moderated by Martha Heller, managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at executive search firm ZRG Partners in Boston.

Swetz; Hermens; Candance Labelle, environmental sustainability program director at Falls Church, Va.-based IT service provider CSC Corp.; and Harkeeret Singh, global head of energy and sustainable technology for Thompson Reuters in London, provided some real-world information about their companies' green IT programs to an audience of Boston CIOs. Here are five questions the panelists addressed, offering advice on what works and what doesn't.

  1. What are some metrics your companies rely on to show Green IT business value?

    Most companies are still in the Stone Age when it comes to metrics for green IT. Organizations like The Green Grid, for example, are developing complex algorithms for measuring productivity per kilowatt hour, Thompson Reuters' Singh said. But he is unconvinced that this "holy grail" will be in widespread use anytime soon, in part because there are so many business models.

    Instead, he and State Street's Swetz rely on power usage effectiveness, or PUE. This metric, also developed by The Green Grid, is computed by dividing the amount of power entering a data center by the amount of power used to run the center's computer infrastructure. (PUE is therefore expressed as a ratio, with overall efficiency improving as the quotient decreases towards 1). "The reason PUE has been so successful is because it is simple," Singh said.

    But PUE must be balanced with risk, and a "good" PUE depends in part on what industry you're in, Swetz said. The Tier 4 data centers used by most financial services companies have multiple layers of redundancy working at 50% capacity -- not very efficient. There is a lot of discussion about pegging PUE to certain types of infrastructure, using the Uptime Institute Inc.'s structure of availability.

    PUE is not a household word for Timberland's board of directors, Hermens quipped. Instead, the IT team put meters on its data centers to measure electricity use over time, while simultaneously measuring compute capacity. "What we showed was an upward trajectory in compute capacity … at the same time we were showing a downward trajectory in electricity utilization," she said. The message to the board: "I can do more and I can cost you less, in a more sustainable way," she added.

  2. What is your company doing about e-waste?

    E-waste -- the electronic waste generated from IT equipment -- is a growing concern among companies, CSC's Labelle said. The hazardous materials in the equipment not only are a blight on the environment, but also can be a public relations nightmare when pictures hit the news of toxic waste heaps being picked over by children in Third World countries. Big companies like CSC, Thompson Reuters and State Street all contract with certified waste recyclers. CSC uses Intechra Group LLC in the U.S. and other countries. State Street and Reuters are currently looking for a recycler who can provide a global solution.

    Timberland showed an upward trajectory in compute capacity and a downward one in electricity use. The message to the board? 'I can do more and I can cost you less, in a more sustainable way.'
    Rosalee Hermens
    former CIOTimberland Co.
    State Street recently turned waste into watts. In order to comply with the strict new Massachusetts data privacy law on the handling of personally identifiable information, State Street destroyed 100,000 tapes and replaced them with ones that have encryption. The older tapes were taken to a "green and clean" incinerator in Haverhill, Mass., where they generated 600 watts of electricity.

    Timberland "struggles constantly" with whether to give its old computers to organizations that really need them but might not dispose of them properly, or to a certified recycler. "We did some of each," Hermens said. "So, you're doing good and you're doing bad simultaneously."

    In Europe, the RoHS Directive prohibits the use of computers and electronics equipment that contain certain levels of hazardous materials. Some states have similar legislation. The panelists advised CIOs to ask vendors to supply products that meet the RoHS standard, because it makes it easier to dispose of the equipment afterward.

  3. How does vendor management fit into your green IT strategy?

    Green IT, in one form or another, now is part of the rating criterion for their organizations' RFPs, all the panelists said. For some, that weighted rating can be significant, CSC's Labelle said: A recent RFP from a government agency weighted green IT at 15%.

    Reuters looks at its service providers' PUE when it's procuring collocation space, Singh said, but also expects these providers to follow its "code of conduct" for data center efficiency.

    State Street's Swetz brought up the sustainability wrinkle in cloud computing. Major cloud computing vendors claim very efficient processing environments. "What they neglect to tell you is they had to duplicate that entire environment, because they had taken on a lot of risk in their primary environment," he said. "That is great for availability, but terrible for energy efficiency."

  4. What steps have you taken to make green IT part of the company culture?

    Cultural change is the hardest part of launching a green IT strategy, the panel said. CSC's LaBelle, who began her job thinking she could start a green revolution overnight, stressed the importance of "taking small steps": "Educate before you legislate," she said.

    Of course, executive support is critical, the panelists agreed. But you also have to have a champion for every business group, one of the things Singh would do differently if he were starting his green program today.

    It is critical to align policy and tools, Timberland's Hermens said. A CIO who signs off on a policy for mandatory double-sided printing, for example, had better make sure there are double-sided printers on hand. "You have to have the tools to enable the employees to walk the talk."

    It also seems that winning matters, even when it comes to green IT. Several panelists set up energy-saving contests, with good results. State Street's Swetz got end users engaged by asking them to "green" their files, then "overcommunicated" the wins.

    Timberland's green IT strategy would have "moved faster" if she had put green targets into employee goal sheets, Hermens said.

  5. Bonus: Five quick wins for CIOs implementing a green IT program

    When you put up an uninterrupted power supply (UPS), switch from a lead acid battery to a flywheel. You get rid of hazardous material and reduce energy costs.

    For big savings in "ghost" power, get everybody a power strip and tell them to plug everything into that power strip and turn it off every night.

    Calculate your savings from virtualization. For every virtualized server, the organization reaps about $600 in cost avoidance.

    Reduce your paper use by 8,800 sheets and you can save one tree.

    Decommission: An average 10% to 15% of equipment in companies can be turned off. Data center audits inevitably turn up servers with no connections to network cables that remain turned on. Ask employees to nominate servers that can be turned off -- and offer prizes.

  6. Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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