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Green IT: Buzzword or strategy?

Green IT is the thing to do -- but what does that really mean, what's the plan, and who should manage it?

Scores of IT organizations can slap a green label on the energy-saving initiatives they were doing before the term came into vogue, but that doesn't mean they have a broad-based strategy for managing green IT.

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 A Forrester Research Inc. survey conducted last October showed that only 15% of 130 IT managers polled from companies with at least 1,000 employees had an overall plan for implementing green IT practices.

But the rest will have no trouble finding suggestions and business drivers to justify an action plan and management strategy.

"The great news is that you can do the right thing for the business as well as the right thing for the environment," said Christopher Mines, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester. "In many cases, the alignment is pretty darned good."

IT organizations can start with the typical energy- and money-saving measures, such as powering down computers and consolidating servers in the data center. But a true green IT initiative will extend to other areas, including architecting software to reduce power consumption, recycling computing equipment and devising new creative plans for material efficiency.

Monsanto Co., for instance, recycles its PCs and servers, but it's taking the extra step of trying to cut transportation and fuel costs as well as its environmental impact. The St. Louis-based agricultural company formerly sent its desktop equipment to Chicago for recycling; it's now looking into a St. Louis-based service.

Underlying philosophy

Lisa Kramer, IT infrastructure operations lead at Monsanto, said there was no mandate or directive from the company's CEO or senior management. Such efforts are inherent in Monsanto's pledge to protect the environment, as an agriculture-centric business. Employees are encouraged, in everything they do, to "think about how to make it more efficient," she said.

One significant top-down management initiative is Monsanto's membership in the Chicago Climate Exchange. Under that voluntary program, the company has agreed to reduce by 2010 its direct carbon emissions from major U.S. operations to 6% below its 2000 levels, or to purchase carbon emission offsets.

Another major decision was Monsanto's commitment to purchase 10% of the total energy consumption at its Creve Coeur, Mo., site from renewable sources, such as wind power, through a partnership with its local energy provider, Ameren Corp.

In that same vein, Monsanto recently built an energy-efficient data center for which the company is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The IT group also has done significant work with server virtualization and consolidation, reducing more than 300 servers to 16 physical hosts.

"It's just part of Monsanto's philosophy, so it's ingrained in everybody," Kramer said.

Find a champion

Other companies might need to take the more classic approach of enlisting a "champion" to coordinate green IT work. Aaron Hay, a research consultant at Info-Tech Research Group, said it will be critical for many IT organizations to secure a green-minded sponsor in senior management -- preferably the CEO, CFO or COO.

"The CIO needs to be on board, but I think you also need some other sponsor or champion from the boardroom, because a lot of changes IT can go forward and do," he said. But "it can't do it without the cooperation and collaboration with other departments."

Green IT guidelines

• Define an environmental policy, identifying and prioritizing the issues the organization wants to address. Do this within the context of the enterprise's broader environmental and corporate social responsibility policies.

• Have the IT organization be responsible for the energy efficiency of the data center and IT equipment.

• Make the data center a priority, but understand the green IT strategy must extend beyond that.

• Create an environmental performance dashboard based on the enterprise's and IT organization's environmental policy.

• Use existing and emerging energy management tools, and address behavioral issues to decrease the power consumption of IT-related equipment.

Source: "10 Key Elements of a 'Green IT' Strategy," Gartner Inc., Dec. 7, 2007

 The IT organization should draft an action plan that includes an overall vision, strategy and specific goals, Hay said. He recommended that IT leaders spearhead a multidisciplinary effort that would involve representatives from all levels of the organization, including end users, business managers and executives.

Hay said the group's work should focus on answering the following questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What is the scope of the changes that will take place over the next one to three years?

Forrester's Mines recommended that the green IT leader schedule a breakfast session with the facilities staff that manages the power, buildings and real estate. "It just consistently amazes me how siloed and separate those organizations are; the IT people have no idea what the electric bill is," he said.

Mines further suggested arranging lunch with the finance staff, since IT often needs to make capital expenditures to consolidate data centers, implement server virtualization and refresh equipment. Since the facilities group reaps the benefits of those projects, the finance department can help to blend the facilities and IT spreadsheets to make sure credit is given where credit is due, he said.

"That is a legitimate barrier to get this stuff going," Mines said. "Finance has to be the catalyst to bust down the silos and to create shared incentive and shared rewards for the folks who are trying to implement these kinds of things."

At some point, a large IT organization also might want to conduct a formal assessment of its IT infrastructure, looking into areas such as power consumption and the thermal footprint of the data center, Mines advised. He estimated the cost might range between $25,000 and $50,000.

"My experience is that most IT organizations don't necessarily have a lot of expertise around this," Mines said.

Leading a company-wide shift

But IT does have significant expertise to enable other parts of the business to go green. The organization can be a key facilitator with company-wide initiatives, such as videoconferencing or telecommuting, that reduce business travel from both a cost and a carbon emission standpoint, Mines added.

Corporations anticipating government regulations, mandates or directives on carbon emissions might turn to IT for help during the next few years. In Europe, there's already a system whereby heavy carbon producers are issued a quota, noted Simon Mingay, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. Companies that exceed their quotas must buy carbon credits; those under their quotas can sell them.

"There's nothing to indicate that in North America that is about to happen," Mingay said. "But if you look at the longer-term future, it is a perfectly plausible and reasonable scenario to suggest that it will happen. Therefore, that is a risk they should be factoring into their planning."

In the meantime, there's plenty of opportunity to simply save money by plucking the low-hanging fruit in the data center and IT infrastructure, in terms of energy efficiency, even if the environmental benefits are "purely coincidental," Mingay said.

"This is going to become increasingly important," he added. "We really ain't seen nothing yet in terms of the IT organization being asked to contribute toward driving energy efficiency both in its infrastructure but very importantly in helping the organization increase its own energy efficiency as well."

When Highmark Inc. began planning its new data center six years ago, the Pittsburgh-based health insurer knew it wanted certification from a security perspective. "Then we said, 'Why not look at it from a green perspective?'" CIO Tom Tabor said, although green wasn't the word he used back then.

Simple common sense dictated Highmark should try to manage its power consumption more effectively, and the company ultimately decided to go after LEED certification, Tabor noted.

Tabor said he doesn't know if the data center's "shining example" helped to trigger green initiatives in the rest of the organization, but the company's CEO has been supportive and actively engaged in discussions, and the facilities folks "certainly have religion."

The IT group continues to look at other green initiatives, even from a retrofit perspective, Tabor said. Already, its virtualization efforts are enabling the company to cut its server count. Making benefit information and enrollment options available online not only reduces paper use, but it also gets information to users quicker and less expensively, Tabor noted.

"My belief is the only thing people are going to do is what makes business sense," he said. "The reality is, that's what's going to drive this."

Carol Sliwa is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts. Write to her at

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