Employees across the four offices of the David Suzuki Foundation have gradually migrated up the ladder of green communication technologies over the years, fundamentally changing how they do business.
“Now everybody knows travelling is just too costly and hard on employees. Nobody likes to travel by air anymore,” said Peter Robinson, CEO of the Vancouver-based environmental non-profit organization that bears the name of its founder.
With satellite offices in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, staying connected is vital, but for an organization whose message is environmental sustainability, Robinson said travel-free communication was not up for debate.
Internal communications at the David Suzuki Foundation has been happening by way of videoconferencing for several months now, a green strategy with roots in basic teleconferencing. Robinson estimates a savings upwards of$50,000 annually from cutting back on flights, hotel and meal expenses.
The Foundation boasts indirect benefits as well, though they are harder to quantify. “Certainly we know it means that people are more focused and they are not burnt out as they normally are through travel,” said Robinson.
The spotlight on green IT has faded in recent years, but that’s certainly no indication that organizations have made much progress, said Simon Mingay, lead green IT analyst with Gartner Inc. based in the U.K. “That doesn’t mean it’s over and done with. Far from it,” said Mingay.
Organizations still have a long way to go even with basic initiatives, “low-hanging fruit” like videoconferencing, data centre cooling and energy use, consolidation and virtualization, Mingay said.
Once that initial phase is realized, Mingay said the next steps should tackle more complex initiatives that can be foggier in terms of return on investment. Dynamic energy management, for example, challenges the long-standing mentality of leaving things to run as they always have. “It works, so just leave it,” said Mingay of the traditional thinking. “That’s what I’m being measured on — does it work?”
It doesn’t help that energy is cheap either, leaving people to care little about greenhouse gas emissions. Mingay said the primary motivating factor behind any green IT strategy continues to be business efficiency. “You could completely remove the green word from it,” he said.
One problem inhibiting a green IT strategy is the lack of tools with which to demonstrate green progress, said Tom Baumann, CEO with ClimateCheck Corp., a consultancy that measures success in reducing greehouse gas emissions. “If you can’t really measure and have some confidence and certainty in improvements or the change, it’s difficult to be comfortable with knowing if you got the full ROI,” said Baumann.
But it’s not just about the lack of tools. There’s also a need for standards that are specific to particular systems performance rather than relying on general measures, said Baumann. The problem is, a standard that reads “plus or minus 20 per cent on an ROI is going to raise a few eyebrows,” he said.
Ottawa-based ClimateCheck created a global Web-based platform for standards development that aims to address the cost and labour of the process. While the initiative has taken off, Baumann said there is still much work to do.
Aaron Hay, research manager with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. said that although cloud computing and virtualization are ranked as the top initiatives for 2010, IT departments still aren’t installing green measurement tools at the data centre nor desktop level.
“Those things we are still missing, and to prove a business case you need to have that data in front of you,” said Hay.
Lack of visibility into usage and cost aside, Hay said enterprises’ green IT strategies are troubling in other ways too. It’s one thing to procure the green technologies – and there is no shortage of options on the market – but going green is a lifecycle behavioural shift, said Hay. Deploying a fleet of thin clients or virtual servers is a great first step, but it requires systems management to ensure smart usage.
In some cases, enterprises don’t need to buy new green technologies to realize green goals. Using what is already there in a more controlled fashion can be key, said Hay. “There’s a host of initiatives that pretty much any IT department could, if (they’re) not doing already, easily do without spending any new cash on hardware,” he said.
If large distributed enterprises were to scrutinize their IT infrastructure management, they might find a surprising degree of inefficiency. Ron Dembo, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Zerofootprint Software Inc., said large organizations are often plagued by unmonitored pockets of underutilized servers which he calls “closet server farms.”
“If you add them up across the organization, they are a huge server farm,” said Dembo, whose company helps businesses measure green progress. In a large bank or an academic institution, underutilized server farms can exist in thousands of scattered groups sometimes residing in an actual closet, leading to server sprawl and energy overuse.
Carrots and sticks
Dembo said closet server farms persist not only because they fly beneath the radar, but their energy consumption is costly to measure. Unlike a single integrated data centre, the cost of metering many small closet farms would be prohibitive. Zerofootprint has built a tool for measuring and aggregating clusters of servers across distributed enterprises.
The hurdle facing many green IT initiatives is the lack of carrots dangling on the end of sticks, thinks Ryan Penn, president of business development with Markham, Ont.-based thin client vendor ThinDesk Inc. “These things with no direct painful implications all take time,” said Penn.
The industry has made significant strides in green areas like virtualization, and physical usage of products, like less packaging, more recyclable material and fewer toxic substances, said Penn. But organizations should think beyond the initial investment and consider an ongoing, holistic strategy, he said.
ThinkDesk provides a managed services environment through thin clients that, according to Penn, uses 75 per cent less energy than a traditional PC. But the service extends beyond just the physical device and its reduced energy use. Penn said it’s also about eliminating the need for a server room and all its cooling and energy demands.
But while green is not yet the motivating factor behind customers buying thin clients, Penn believes that will change. “The tipping point is when we have massive carrots, when there is an overwhelming motivation to switch over because you’d be rewarded for doing so, or because it’s very expensive not to do so,” said Penn.
Toronto Hydro is providing a large incentive for businesses to think green. The power utility’s Data Centre Incentive Program (DCIP) offers financial incentives to businesses that reduce their data centre energy consumption.
Michael Pardal, conservation demand management program consultant with Toronto Hydro, said participating companies are driven by a variety of reasons, including a desire to reduce electricity usage and IT equipment footprint. “These are all positives for them and really make an impact on their bottom line,” said Pardal.
Just one year since its inception, the program boasts more than 400 kilowatts of peak demand electricity reduction among four companies. Pardal said there are 25 more businesses slated to participate.
One organization that has made strides in its green vision is Vancouver Island Technology Park, which leases office and research space to growing companies. The British Columbia-based facility is taking a connected approach to going green and in 2002 was the first in Canada to become LEED Gold-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.
Vancouver Island Technology Park’s CEO Dale Gann said the goal is to be a showcase for smart and connected real estate in Canada. So far, the campus has most green systems in place, like energy monitoring systems, VoIP telephones and teleconferencing, which will then integrate with other facilities systems like security surveillance. “(We want to) tie the individual pieces into one language, one look, one policy, one program,” said Gann.
The idea is that a connected strategy will allow for better management through the application of policies across all the IT pieces. “In the past we really didn’t have a visual of what was going on and how they were talking to each other and how they were affecting each other,” said Gann.
The holistic approach is particularly important for the research campus that plays host to many customers whose projects consume varying amounts of energy. A recent Hydro energy audit leaves Gann to predict the IT integration will afford the organization an annual 30 to 40 per cent savings.
But Gann isn’t stopping at holistic management. The research campus wants its green strategy to filter down the ranks to each of its tenants’ employees.
“So getting them to take the effort to hit the little services tab on the phone to reduce the light load down to 75 per cent across a 100,000-square-foot facility has an impact,” said Gann.
The amount of technology consumed to maintain a business and the facility in which it operates is growing fast. Those same IT pieces that already exist to support a business should be used to intelligently monitor, report and control energy use, said Rick Huijbregts, vice-president of vertical industries with Cisco Systems Inc. in Canada. “We can reversely use the power of that technology to have an even greater impact,” said Huijbregts.
There are already vendors of Internet Protocol (IP)-based products connecting through an IP network that can give customers valuable visibility into energy use through dashboards, much like business intelligence reporting, said Huijbregts.
The David Suzuki Foundation’s Robinson awaits the day when the cost of green technologies is not so prohibitive as it is today. The more accessible it becomes to smaller organizations the more affordable it will get, he thinks.
The Foundation is currently using videoconferencing for internal communications, but eventually wants to broaden that to business partners. And it doesn’t stop there. Robinson said the green technology will help the organization become its own broadcaster to schools and conferences about its message of sustainability.
“I think in 10 years we will look back and ask how did we ever do our business flying around the world?” said Robinson.
Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau