Gathering green

Chief Technology Officer Arvind Thapar wants to bring new green technology to his company, but his proposed initiative — installing wind turbines to generate power — is decidedly outside the usual realm of IT.

Thapar is still preparing his formal pitch to First National of Nebraska, the Omaha-based financial services firm where he works, but he says initial reaction to the idea has been positive — something he wouldn’t have expected five years ago. His experience clearly shows the shifting winds of our times.

Leading businesses are looking for ways to get green. Some are motivated by concern for the planet; others by the cost savings or the marketing advantages that can come from more environmentally friendly policies. Often, they’re driven by a combination of factors. In any event, IT has a key role to play.

Here’s a checklist of suggestions from Computerworld’s Top Green IT 2008 winners, to get you started and keep you moving in a greener direction.

Low-Hanging Green Fruit

1. Limit paper use

The paperless office is still a dream. Each year, the U.S. goes through 4 million tons of copy paper, 2 billion books, 350 million magazines and 25 billion newspapers. This can lead to deforestation, and the paper manufacturing process produces carbon dioxide.

But IT can take simple steps to cut corporate paper use.

London-based BT Group PLC moved printers from desktops to central locations. That forces workers to get up when they want to retrieve printed material — which helps deter excess printing, says Donna Young, BT Group’s head of environmental climate change. The IT staff also set printers to automatically use both sides of the paper.

Other World Computing in Woodstock, Ill., controls paper use by sending managers reports of what’s been printed so they can spot excess usage and try to curb it, says CEO Larry O’Connor.

2. Buy renewable energy

This is an easy one: Contact your power company to see if it offers electricity from renewable energy sources (many do), such as wind or solar power, says Austin Energy CIO Andres Carvallo.

There are a few caveats, though. Unless you can persuade the facilities folks to get green energy for the entire company, you might have to limit it to just the data center (where CIOs usually have more control over power supplies). You’ll also have to persuade the finance people to shell out a little extra money, at least to start.

Carvallo says green energy usually carries a premium — Austin Energy charges 20 percent extra for it — although many power companies, including his own, lock in the price for multiple years, which means your green power could soon be cheaper than electricity from conventional sources.

3. Use power management tools

The nonprofit Climate Savers Computing Initiative estimates that using power management features for desktop computers can save more than 600 kilowatt-hours of electricity and about $60 annually in energy costs per computer. Multiply that by the hundreds — or thousands — of PCs you have in your IT shop, and you can see how this simple action can turn into a lot of green.

To maximize energy savings, the Climate Savers Computing Initiative recommends putting monitors and hard drives to sleep after 15 minutes or less of idleness, with system standby occurring after 30 minutes.

Next Steps

1. Virtualize

Virtualization can yield significant savings, says Larry Vertal, a member of the board of directors at The Green Grid, a global consortium dedicated to developing and promoting energy efficiency for data centers and information service delivery. He says at least one Green Grid member saw energy savings of 70 percent.

Norm Fjeldheim, senior vice president and CIO at Qualcomm Inc. in San Diego, embarked on virtualization of his data center in 2003, giving his team just $250,000 to fund the project.

At the time, the company had about 450 servers. Five years later, with virtualization in the data center about 70 percent complete, the company has 420 servers running more applications and serving more workers.

Fjeldheim estimates that virtualization has saved about $15 million in avoided capital costs and about $4million to $5 million in power costs because of decreased energy demands.

Although virtualization has clear green benefits, it’s challenging to implement. “There is a skill set barrier and a cultural barrier to entry,” says Daniel Blanchard, vice president of enterprise operations at Marriott International Inc. “Many [business] people want their own system, and they don’t want to share with anybody else.” Marriott’s IT shop has implemented virtualization projects in part because of the green benefits, he says.

2. Facilitate telecommuting

Technology can eliminate a lot of daily commuting and travel requirements. But IT must provide the right tools, from at-home networking capabilities to audioconferencing and online collaboration systems.

At BT Group, those tools allow about 10 percent of employees to work full time from home and 70 percent to have flexible work arrangements, Young says. The company also has invested in technologies for virtual meetings and collaboration, reducing the need for employees to travel between sites.

Young says these initiatives have prevented the production of 97,600 tons of carbon dioxide that commuting and traveling would have generated. (Company studies have also shown that the initiatives increased productivity by 21 percent and reduced sick time by 63 percent.)

3. Include green objectives in procurement policies IT procurement policies have long specified product performance standards. It’s now time to add environmental standards to that list.

Fjeldheim tweaked his shop’s evaluation criteria several years ago, expanding financial considerations from purchase price to total cost of ownership. That means looking at a device’s total life cycle, power consumption, recycling costs and other environmental factors. “That was a little bit of a mind shift for us, but when you start to think about it strategically, over the life of the product, it starts to be an easier decision, and it’s easier to sell to finance,” Fjeldheim explains.

Taking such action is easier now than ever, Carvallo adds, because vendors provide more details about their products’ environmental impact and energy requirements, and the federal Energy Star efficiency rating system now applies to computer equipment.