Going green made easy: Sun shares its tips

Making your company greener doesn’t have to be a daunting task, and there are simple ways that IT managers can help green up the enterprise.

Sun Microsystems’s vice-president of eco-responsibility Dave Douglas and Forrester Research senior vice-president Chris Mines recently shared their tips for making business more eco-friendly at a “Frankly Speaking” breakfast hosted by CIO Magazine (which is owned by IT World Canada).

Mines said that companies come at sustainability from several different tacks, including hard cost savings (which usually result from increased energy efficiency or software changes), brand value, and employee retention. The common constant tends to be, however, the business case rather than the warm-and-fuzzy feelings that result from doing the right thing. Said Mines: “The primary motivation is, ‘Where’s the hard ROI?’ And it usually comes from energy cost savings.”

According to Mines, IT energy usage tends to make up two to 10 per cent of company power usage, depending on industry. (A manufacturing company will have less tech-related energy expenditure, while a financial company will have much higher power use from this area.) Greening up the IT operations of a company could seem like a gargantuan task, but, said Mines, it could be worse.

“If you look across options like new (more eco-friendly) manufacturing processes, new buildings and data centres, and getting workers to switch to public transit, server virtualization and everything else looks easy in comparison,” he said.

Here’s where IT could take the lead, said Mines. “IT can be the leader by being the first to get energy reductions. IT is actually a disproportionate contributor (to the green movement),” he said.

One challenge that IT managers face during a green-up is the other kind of green—money. “You have to be able to blend capital expenditure and operational expenditure: the up-front costs with the long-term reduction in operational cost. You must have the financial flexibility to blend those two together,” he said. Mines suggests working with a financial person from the company who could help in putting together such a strategy.

Another challenge is the reputations on the line. “IT has to provide the capital expenditure, but it’s the facilities that see the reductions and the improvement. IT staff say, ‘Why should I take the hit when it’s other people spreadsheets that see the improvements?’ You need to do the buy-in together, which can include incentives, recognition, and rewards for operational expenditure improvements,” said Mines.

Sun has reaped the operational expenditure benefits of a greener enterprise. According to Douglas, the company has implemented all sorts of successful green initiatives, including more eco-friendly product design and end-of-life recycling programs.

The company has focused on reducing its energy consumption. In 2002, it set a goal of reducing its energy usage by 20 per cent by 2012. Douglas said that the company has probably reached that goal (or will meet or surpass it in 2008). This has resulted in savings of $15-million for the company, while the flexible work program (which has reduced the number of offices and increased the number of days that workers work from home) saves Sun in the neighborhood of $70-million annually in real estate costs.

It wasn’t afraid to find allies in its fight for energy efficiency. In Sun’s case, it brought the power company to the table during the nine-month design process for a new data centre. The up-front costs were higher, but, said Douglas, “To offset the costs of moving to a more energy-efficient model, we got a $1-million rebate.”

Such a direct approach can often save time and money in the long run, although the interim solution is currently popular. Said Mines: “Many companies are trying to avoid building or retrofitting their data centres. They want to optimize their current functionality and calculate the costs based on avoidance rather than return.” However, he said, virtualization and consolidation has been working well as a short-term fix, often extending the life of the data centre by three to five years.

In fact, Sun started a recent data centre construction in avoidance mode, according to Douglas, but, in the end, long-term cost savings won out. The data centre’s new design, should pay for itself in three years when it comes to energy cost savings, he said.

Smaller steps can also have surprisingly big gains, said Mines. He suggests doing an inventory of old equipment to check on the actual usefulness and efficiency of the machines. These can be turned off or consolidated, or turned in for newer, more energy-efficient models. Sun did its own “technology refresh”, replacing anything that was five or more years old with more efficient models. “We had a return on those in ten months,” he said. “We put to use the whole capital expenditure/operational expenditure equation—if it’s more than five years old, there’s probably something you can replace it with that saves rack space and cooling better.”

It’s easy to let these old beasts languish in your data centre when you don’t know how much power they’re secretly gobbling up. Mines says that a surefire way to build a business case for greener infrastructure is to implement an energy chargeback system. “You need to figure out who your facilities person is and take them to breakfast!” he said. “Most IT staff don’t care—they don’t see the bill, and don’t pay the bill; it’s always been about price and performance, but now it’s price, performance, and power. But once facilities start charging IT for power, you’d better believe they care. IT can then, in turn, charge users for their power, and that will get they attention.”

But what do you do with the old machines? Mines said that another way IT can lead the way to a more sustainable business is to build end-of-life concerns into contracts with vendors and outsourcers. Said Mines: “Put it in the procurement criteria. If you write it into the RFP, you’ll make sure that (sustainability) is the shared responsibility of the buyer and seller and it won’t end up in a landfill or third-world country.”

It’s starting to catch on, but slowly, and with pitfalls along the way. There are plenty of shady recycling companies that use extremely environmentally-unfriendly practices to strip dead electronics of their useful parts, a practice which is often done in third-world countries. Director of information technology Warren Browne, for instance, utilizes a local recycling firm so that as many components can be re-used end-to-end, he said. “We actually have to pay to recycle these, at about $25 each, but we don’t want to be shipping overseas,” said Browne.

The panelists were asked how to best begin their green initiatives, but the answer lay, in fact, not only with management, but with their workers. They can be the missing link in any enterprise greening. Douglas cited a 2007 Harris poll of 1,741 U.S. employees ages 18-54, which found that 58 percent said they turn off computers at home when they are done using them, compared to a mere 34 percent at work. “Get people to turn things off!” said Mines. “Lights, PCs, monitors, printers, fax machines are all left on, although, in some way, it’s a lot harder to change people’s behaviour. But once you get them thinking about their own workspace, it’s very easy to do things that have a significant impact.”

“The problem,” said Douglas, “is that people don’t equate themselves with the company.” This is why it’s necessary to get employee buy-in, according to Douglas, who suggested green workshops and brainstorming sessions with employees. “Don’t make it a top-down thing,” he said. Results are important, too. He recommended keeping employees up-to-date on the concrete results of green initiatives, and rewarding them with fun things so that there is some meaning and worth in it for them.

Jim Lewis, director of information management and access with the Ministry of the Environment, said that he put up an online “green suggestion box” and was surprised when he was flooded with ideas, but said that such a buy-in was a good start.

For even Browne, who, in addition to his recycling program, employs a full-time green management staffer, has implemented virtualization, and uses eco-friendly materials in his furniture plant, said, “It’s a work in progress—we have a long way to go.”

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