Business Taps Into Green Opportunities

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2012-09-18

By Samuel Greengard

Over the last few years, the idea of operating a green company—and promoting green IT—has undergone a remarkable transformation. Companies have discovered that it makes sense and saves dollars to design and build more efficient data centers, servers and software applications.

"There are clear and compelling business reasons to go green," states Rami Rihani, senior manager and green IT operating lead for Accenture.

Nevertheless, it's clear that many organizations have only begun to embrace more energy-efficient business and IT practices.

"The recession and spike in energy costs over the last few years has permanently changed thinking about green IT," says Mark Monroe, executive director of the Green Grid, an industry consortium that promotes more efficient practices. "We have seen steady improvements in power usage effectiveness, though significant opportunities remain."

For many businesses, the decision to go green—or at least greener—is driven by a desire to cut capital costs and operational expenses. But it's also no bulletin that consumers, particularly younger ones, increasingly base their buying decisions on a company's green practices, including how it approaches sustainability.

Companies that attempt to “greenwash” the public and shareholders with inflated and false claims place themselves at risk. At the same time, organizations like Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) apply growing pressure for organizations to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.

To be sure, it's no simple task to plug into positive results. "Many organizations have already plucked the low-hanging fruit,” says Accenture’s Rihani. “They've adopted monitoring systems and switched over to energy-efficient servers and computers. It's becoming more difficult to squeeze out improvements. Organizations must take a more sophisticated approach to green IT."

Plugging Into Gains

The greening of IT has clearly moved into the mainstream. According to a recent study conducted by IT reseller CDW, 54 percent of organizations in the United States have programs in place to manage power demand or energy consumption, and 32 percent of overall data center purchasing is green. In addition, 75 percent of respondents that have an initiative to manage data center power have trimmed IT energy costs in their center.

Today, many initiatives focus on virtualization and consolidation, which can deliver impressive results. But green IT also revolves around a number of other initiatives. These include more effective cooling approaches, energy-efficient and load-shedding uninterruptible power systems, procuring qualified Energy Star devices, increased use of hosting services, and building more efficient networks and applications. Nevertheless, CDW reports that only half of IT departments say their organization has asked them to reduce energy costs.

One organization that has charged forward with a green IT initiative is Lee County Public Schools in Fort Myers, Florida. The district, with about 100 campuses and 53,000 PCs, ranks in the top 40 in size nationally. It has operated the current data center for the about five years.

The district relies on about 80 high-density blade servers running in a virtualized environment, and that translates to approximately 300 virtual machines overall, says Dwayne Alton, director of information technology for Lee Country Public Schools.

Virtualizing servers and storage has paid significant dividends. Using VMware's enterprise platform, the district has pruned its server footprint by about 50 percent. It also has worked with CDW-G to install a storage infrastructure that has reduced the size of its storage requirements by upward of 75 percent.

Meanwhile, the district upgraded to a cooling system that forces air up from the floor and built channels within the data center so that air can flow more efficiently. It is now migrating to LED lighting to replace incandescent fixtures and older projectors.

This has led to about a 30 percent drop in power consumption, Alton notes. What's more, he believes that as employees and others turn to iPads and other tablets, power consumption will continue to decrease.

"Energy efficiency and cutting costs related to operating our IT systems are essential," he explains. "It’s a very important part of our mission and is likely to become even more important moving forward."


Green Blooms

As companies focus on building a more energy-efficient infrastructure, metrics—such as The Green Grid's power usage effectiveness (PUE)—often drop markedly. In recent years, companies such as Google and eBay have frequently reduced their PUEs from above 2.0 to below 1.2.

"Many companies have become far more efficient in deploying the right number of systems, and, through virtualization, using these systems more effectively," Monroe states.

At Organic Bouquet, an online floral delivery firm that contracts with growers globally, the greening of IT has meant taking things a step further and moving systems into the cloud. A couple of years ago, the company turned to infrastructure hosting provider Rackspace so that it can scale up and down IT resources dynamically. When there's a surge in traffic—during Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, for instance—the firm can immediately dial up capacity and then drop it back down afterward.

"This approach saves a tremendous amount of energy because we don't have to operate as large a data center with excess capacity," says CEO Robert McLaughlin. He estimates that green IT initiatives have reduced the need for electricity-drawing equipment by as much as 65 percent.

The company also operates a LEED-certified headquarters building with smart systems that control cooling and lighting systems. The design of the structure allows cool air to enter from below and warm air to exit from above. "This allows us to run cooling units 10 to 15 degrees warmer," he reports.

Accenture's Rihani says that the flexibility provided by cloud computing makes perfect sense for organizations looking to go green. In many instances, he explains, cloud providers that focus on operating a data center at the core of their business manage energy requirements far more effectively than a firm that has to layer green computing on top of its business and IT demands. "Cloud providers and hosting companies think about these issues because they directly affect the bottom line," he notes.

But green computing is continuing to evolve in other ways. Rihani says that organizations must focus on various other emerging challenges, including the growing use of tablets and smartphones.

 "Different devices and systems are changing power requirements, and organizations must monitor how they're using power and what's required," he says. All of this makes it necessary to drill down into systems and assess how everything from devices to applications draws power. For instance, "There is a growing focus on how software code impacts compute processes and performance," Rihani explains.

Favorable Climates

Some companies also are venturing into new territories. They are building data centers in locales that provide favorable climates for cooling. For example, Facebook announced a facility in Lulea, Sweden, last October, where it will use arctic air to keep the equipment sufficiently cool eight months of the year.

Google already operates several data centers near the Arctic Circle, and both companies, and others, have facilities located in areas of the United States, including the Pacific Northwest, where environmentally friendly hydroelectric and wind power are more plentiful. "There is a growing focus on looking at all aspects of green IT," Rihani explains.

The green movement is an issue that’s vital to countries around the world, transcending do-good companies and feel-good sustainability reports. For example, in the Republic of Ireland, it has become a core economic issue that drives investment.

Industrial Development Agency (IDA) Ireland, the country's investment promotion agency, is leveraging the island's geographic location, mild climate and abundant renewable resources to attract many major businesses, including IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Accenture, Citi, Google and Pfizer.

George Bennett, divisional manager of clean technology for IDA Ireland, says that as energy costs rise and availability issues emerge, companies are looking to build data centers and other facilities in locations where power is inexpensive and available. Ireland will cross over from being a net consumer of energy to a net exporter over the next several years, he notes. The country is particularly strong in wind energy.

"Companies are looking at renewable energy sources more favorably all the time," Bennett says. "Clean, renewable energy increasingly drives business and IT decision making.”

And Ireland is not alone. Several other countries—including Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Belgium—have jumped into the fray in recent years. In the United States, several states—including Oregon, North Carolina and Utah—have attracted economic investments due to favorable tax policies and an overall availability of sustainable wind, water or solar energy.