The Power of Green

By Alison Diana  |  Posted 2008-07-30

Kermit the frog was only partly right: While it may not be easy being green, today CIOs have a broad array of tools they can leverage to save the Earth—and their company’s resources.

In fact, a growing number of IT executives at enterprises and government organizations are putting their technical expertise to work improving their organization’s bottom line—along with the environment—with the help of better-designed data centers, virtualization, centralized computer management, and computing devices that demand less power and cooling.

However, IT professionals do face obstacles in their quest to go green, including apathy, cost fears and a concern that greening is just another fad. “I don’t think there are many people or investors who don’t care about saving the environment, but they don’t think of IT as being green,” says Ping Ooi, assistant vice president of Ares Management, a Los Angeles-based financial management firm. “It’s historically been a cost center and an energy hog.”

But the time has never been better for melding the often-complementary goals of saving the environment and saving corporate budgets. “It’s a confluence of the environment and economic pressure,” says Hubert Yoshida, vice president and chief technology officer at Hitachi Data Systems, which, as part of Hitachi, is subject to the parent company’s extensive environmental rules, in place since 1999. “People are running out of floor space and power. This is really about efficiency.”

IT organizations are gearing up to deal with this challenge, often turning to virtualization, centralization and management tools to resolve energy issues.

For example, Osaka Gas, which serves 6.7 million natural-gas customers in the Kansai region of Japan, adopted IBM’s WebSphere Virtual Enterprise to increase its application availability, optimize its operations and provide better integration with business processes. “Virtual Enterprise provided an entry point for application infrastructure virtualization,” says Hiroshi Nakauchi, professional IT architect and technical director at the Osaka Gas Information System Research Institute. “Because of this project’s success, we plan to move to a fully virtualized environment. The most crucial driver has been cutting our electric overhead to protect the environment.”

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Another business that uses virtualization to reduce hardware, cut energy costs and improve operations is BancMidwest Services, a St. Paul, Minn., subsidiary of Mainstreet Bank that manages assets of more than $500 million. The company centralized its storage operation and used virtualization to reduce costs and energy consumption, says Brian Priebe, IT manager and senior network engineer.

To date, the financial firm has virtualized 12 servers and is removing older hardware. It selected the 4 terabyte Compellent Storage Center storage area network (SAN), and Enterprise Manager software to provide the reliability, security and environmental friendliness it needed, Priebe says. The solution features a dashboard that allows BancMidwest to track consumption and charge that back to the appropriate departments.

The solution cost $23,000, compared with $219,000 for a traditional nonvirtualized storage implementation with the same capabilities, he says. In addition, BancMidwest has seen its carbon footprint drop from 10 million pounds to 10,000 pounds, according to Priebe, and the company has planted hundreds of trees to offset any damage it has caused.

Ares Management also turned to virtualization. Founded in 1997, the company now manages more than $20 billion in private equity and grew from using 12 servers two years ago to 80 servers, according to Ooi. The electrical system could not keep up, and breakers blew two or three times a quarter, he recalls.

To deal with that problem, Ares uses five VMware virtual servers, which use only 15 amps of power, versus the 1,550 amps used in the past, says Ooi. The company’s 3.5-ton air conditioner, previously not powerful enough to cool the data center, is now more than adequate, and Ooi estimates energy savings averaging $8,000 a month.

“Management saw that electric bill and said, ‘What did you do?’” he recalls. “Here’s the green I’m talking about—and it’s the dollar.”

Taking Simple Steps
In addition to technology changes such as virtualization, companies can take some simple steps to save energy—and money. Just as children are taught to turn out the lights, IT departments are taking steps to ensure that employees’ PCs are not sucking up unnecessary power.

The city of Las Vegas is a prime example. It is tapping the existing centralized approach to technology to remotely turn off unused computers, says Joseph Marcella, the city’s CIO and director of information technologies. “I shut off the PCs,” he says. “Our first calculation showed a saving of $50,000 a year.”

The city also closely monitors and tweaks internal climate controls and carefully plans server positioning. “We are leveraging our space by configuring the data center in a manner that positions equipment most efficiently,” Marcella adds. “The spacing of rack systems is a whole lot different than in the old days of mainframes or even client-server. That has reduced consumption by 15 percent.”

The Planet, a privately held hosting company in Houston, also redesigned its data centers to boost energy efficiency. “The data center floor tiles were rearranged to better manage cold airflow,” says Jeff Lowenberg, vice president of facilities. “Seals and grommets were installed in the ceiling, in the walls and underneath the floor to reduce bypass airflow. Blanking plates were installed in all server cabinets to direct airflow more efficiently, and the holes beneath our 480-volt power distribution units were sealed to reduce bypass airflow.

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“We also extended the return air plenums on our computer room air-conditioning units to within 2 feet of the data center ceiling. These higher-return air plenums are able to cycle air from the hottest part of the data center, further reducing bypass airflow.”

To house their growing number of servers, many businesses add new data centers, sometimes overbuilding to meet anticipated requirements, says Tim Caulfield, senior vice president, operations, at Savvis, a St. Louis-based company that provides IT infrastructure as a service. Real estate prices are dropping in many areas, but construction is still costly—and often unneeded, he says, adding that many businesses are realizing that their existing networks and servers are not being fully utilized.

“If you’re building a new data center, there are things you can take advantage of that will make it more efficient—just like a new refrigerator is more energy-efficient than an older model,” says Caulfield. “But in the scheme of things, the order of magnitude of the efficiency, by itself, is not going to solve the problems.”

One other critical step is winning top management support for green initiatives. “I’m gearing toward opening the eyes of senior management,” says BancMidwest’s Priebe. “Being fiscally responsible really opens their eyes. When you’re green, you’re being fiscally responsible.”

Unfortunately, the initial price tag for some green solutions can turn off some executives, cautions Osaka Gas’ Nakauchi. “It is sometimes difficult to make a clear presentation to decision-makers in the enterprise on why we should buy ‘green’ hardware,” he says. “Purchase orders may be higher at first glance, especially compared to more standard hardware. In order to sell the idea of green IT to decision-makers—sometimes including board members—we created powerful total-cost-of-ownership return on investment scenarios.”

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Green Incentives
Some companies’ green initiatives are driven by corporate consciousness and a sense of responsibility to the community. In its Statement of Ethics, Wal-Mart requires that associates comply with all relevant environmental laws, reduce waste and appropriately dispose of toxic or hazardous materials, and respect the environmental rights and interests of the communities in which they are located. The largest retailer in the world also mandates the use of ISO 14001, a series of environmental management standards developed and published by the International Organization for Standardization.

Other local, national and global initiatives help organizations decrease their negative impact on the environment. In June, the Climate Group—a global nonprofit organization designed to build public-private partnerships to resolve climate-change problems—unveiled the U.S. portion of the “Together” campaign, which helped British consumers save 522,000 tons of CO2 and more than $200 million on household energy bills.

And the private sector is not alone in implementing environmental programs. As part of a drive to conserve energy, the city of Las Vegas joined the campaign and is networking with other cities to develop innovative ways to promote sustainability and lessen negative impacts on the environment. In December, 2007, it was named American City of the Year by the World Leadership Forum, primarily due to its leadership in sustainability, such as running 90 percent of city vehicles on alternative fuels, according to the international group.

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Las Vegas is also part of the Green Grid, a global consortium that advances energy efficiency in data centers and business computing ecosystems. “The city joined the consortium because we realized that this sustainability issue is not just one thing,” Marcella says. “It’s not just hardware. It’s not just applications, and it’s not just people.”

By 2015, federal agencies must reduce energy consumption by 30 percent, according to INPUT, a Reston, Va., research firm. This, combined with rising energy costs and the need for more technology, will drive the green IT market, the firm says. Requirements are spreading to local and state government, too. Las Vegas, for example, has a green provision in its purchase orders. “It has to be incorporated in everything we do,” Marcella says.

Some businesses are already seeing a dollar return on their green initiatives, while others look forward to reaping rewards. Rotech, a Winter Park, Fla., provider of home medical equipment, estimates that heating and cooling account for about

95 percent of its electric bill and anticipates healthy savings after it virtualizes another 15 racks in late summer. “At that time, I want to look at the power usage and compare it with 12 months ago and 24 months ago,” says Marlin Clark, Rotech’s director of information systems technology. “It will be interesting to see the difference.”

Some organizations enjoy both tangible and intangible benefits from their environmental programs. “Our green initiatives were designed to reduce power consumption and save on energy costs, but we have received positive press and recognition because of it,” says The Planet’s Lowenberg.

Whatever the driver for reducing IT’s environmental impact, the benefits could stretch far beyond corporate profits, reaching into the lives of a generation that is just now tuning into the Muppets and the plights of a certain green frog.