Green IT: Marketing ploy or new tech?

Green IT is something of a chameleon that appeals to different users on different levels. From a 10,000-foot perspective, it’s hard to knock the benefits of energy efficiency, recycling and vendors working side by side with users to promote the green agenda. However, many users are finding it difficult to adopt a technology that is not characterized by a wide selection of physical products that they can buy and implement in their IT infrastructures today.

In the absence of a mature green IT market, users such as PMI Mortgage Insurance Co. and Cooper Communities Inc. are cobbling together green strategies that are saving them money without negatively impacting IT performance. Many of these strategies are based on internal development efforts, while a limited number are taking shape with vendor input. For now, it seems, going green mostly means going it alone, which leaves a big vacuum for vendors to fill with their emerging green IT marketing plans.


Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at The StorageIO Group, a Stillwater, Minn.-based market research firm, takes a dim view of incipient green IT efforts, accusing vendors of “greenwashing” the market. “There’s money in the green story,” he asserts. “If you can make your story sell by making it sound green and appealing to that feel-good green aspect of the market, you’re going to get money out of it.”

Using storage as an example, Schulz cites Hewlett-Packard Co.’s June unveiling of its Adaptive Infrastructure offerings, which are described in a press release that starts out saying, “HP today introduced ‘green’ storage technology that can cut storage array power and cooling costs in data center by 50 percent.”

HP’s new offering includes thin provisioning and performance enhancements for the HP StorageWorks Enterprise Virtual Array family, tape drives based on the Linear Tape Open 4 standard, new DAT 160 tapes for small and medium-size businesses, and the first HP StorageWorks tape product developed exclusively for HP BladeSystem c-Class enclosures. Schulz says the press release’s focus on green is misleading because data is being moved from disk to tape, or to another tier without optimizing the products to consume less power. According to him, it’s simply a shift to another technology, but it’s touted as part of HP’s green initiative.

Schulz acknowledges that virtualization can help reduce the number of servers, but he wonders if consolidating servers is really a shell game with no net benefits. “Here’s the catch,” he says. “If I go to 10 servers down to one, have I saved on power? Maybe. But does that server that I consolidate down to consume any more power than the other ones? It should, but is the ratio 10-to-1, 5-to-1, or 2-to-1?”

The bottom line rules

At this early stage in the green IT game, it’s hard to make definitive statements, because strategies are still being formulated by vendors and users. This is highlighted by the results of a May 2007 Forrester Inc. survey of 124 IT managers and procurement professionals in North America and Europe.

The report, entitled Tapping Buyers’ Growing Interest in Green IT, notes that while 85 percent of respondents said that environmental factors are important in planning IT operations, only one quarter said they have written green criteria into their companies’ purchasing processes.

In the end, of course, it all boils down to the bottom line. As one survey respondent declared, “We would do green because it makes business sense, not because it’s green. It would have to show cost savings.”

The report’s author, Christopher Mines, notes: “We heard two reasons why green matters: efficiency and corporate responsibility. Most IT decision-makers told us that a green purchase would only happen in the context of cost reduction. These are hard-headed, ROI-driven business decisions.”

Follow the vendor

As usual, the vendors are driving the initiative. Gordon Graylish, vice president of Intel Corp.’s sales and marketing group for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says that manufacturers have made significant progress in energy-saving products while the user community is still playing catch-up. David Boone, operations and planning manager at the Denver Health and Hospital Authority, says he is just learning about green IT for the first time. “I think it’s a good concept,” he says. “There are some things that can be done to reduce energy consumption, but I think when you look at the computer world, I just don’t know if it’s feasible at this point in time.”

While he isn’t using new technology to attain his green goals, Stanley M. Pachura, senior vice president, corporate systems, at Walnut Creek, Calif.-based PMI Mortgage Insurance Co., says he believes he’s more in tune with conservation than many. To him, green IT means efficiency in power consumption and reductions in pollution — both in terms of emissions and hardware waste. He says that through his primary vendors, IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc., he is seeing products that also allow him to implement an infrastructure that uses less energy.

“I’m thinking in terms of server consolidation technology that’s allowing us to just run less physical hardware,” Pachura says. “And second, desktop virtualization is allowing us to promote work-at-home-type environments, so we’re not only decreasing the amount of real estate that we’re heating, cooling and supporting, but also allowing people to work at home, which reduces commuting and emissions.”

According to Pachura, PMI has successfully deployed more than 215 virtual servers utilizing EMC Corp’s VMware software. PMI’s technology rollout includes the replacement of 140 existing physical hosts as well as the introduction of 75 new virtual environments directly on only 13 IBM x3850 servers (eight 3-GHz processors, 32GB of memory). The systems supported include both production and preproduction transactional systems, database servers, and file and print servers.

Pachura says he believes that IBM’s recently announced Project Big Green, which is designed to make both IBM’s and its customers’ IT infrastructures more energy efficient, is a sincere effort, because IBM probably runs more data centers than anyone else in the world, so energy savings and ecological support would be logical goals. He also says that green programs being implemented by vendors are important because they drive innovation not only in their own data centers, but in those of their customers as well.

Despite the “hard-headed” bottom-line-oriented approach to green IT described by the Forrester report, there is a higher calling here for some converts, who feel there is a moral obligation as well — and this moral obligation doesn’t exclude financial concerns but operates in conjunction with them. This is the stance of Pat Samples, vice president of information systems at Rogers, Ark.-based Cooper Communities, who also says he is saving money by being green.

“I think there is a moral compunction,” he says. “We are doing things in our personal lives, and things to reduce paper products and recycle. All those sorts of things really need to carry over to the systems side of IT.” Toward that goal, his company is reducing power consumption and recycling hardware with the help of Access Recycling in Springdale, Ark., which either tears the equipment apart or repurposes it.

Samples says his company is saving money via green IT in a couple of ways. “First of all, new equipment is more power-efficient,” he says. “In some places, we’re retiring two and three servers. So electrical consumption is going to go down, and we’re going to save money on licensing costs because we’ll have one server doing the job of two or three.”

Cooper Communities, which is a land development company, has received awards for its environmental programs. The kudos include an environmental stewardship award from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and the Stockton Award from the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society. In addition, The Nature Conservancy has established the Cooper Family Conservation Award, which is presented annually to a business that makes outstanding contributions to conservation in Arkansas.

The company’s primary vendors are Dell Inc., HP and Cisco Systems Inc., and even though his green strategies have been developed internally and independently of those vendors, Samples says he still believes that the overall vendor community is slowly moving toward a greener IT orientation.

“I think it’s something the major IT vendors are starting to address,” he states. “I don’t think they’re where they need to be yet. As far as I know, servers are not meeting green IT initiatives. Desktops are certainly getting there, but I don’t think that server and network infrastructures have been addressed the same way.”

Boone says his hospital can save some energy by turning off PCs that are only used during the day and lights that are not serving any purpose. But when it comes to technology, he says, “if it needs power, you’re going to use that power to get the job done.”

Whether or not vendors are repackaging their existing products and calling them green is a matter for debate. In the mean time, PMI Mortgage’s Pachura seems to sum up the attitude of many users when he says, “I think that what’s really not [product] repackaging is the vendors working with their customers to deploy green technology. We’re actually seeing activities from the vendors where they’re willing to come out and help understand how you can have a more ecology-friendly implementation.”