Finding perspective amidst IT’s green agenda

In case you haven’t heard, information technology is going “green” – or at least making the attempt.

Green is what many IT vendors are promoting as the latest and greatest value proposition for buyers of computing hardware: that environmental concern should be a top-of-mind consideration.

In a perfect world, we’d all be motivated to do our part, but a considerable amount of evidence suggests green is far from top-of-mind for many IT purchasers. In truth, many business and IT professionals couldn’t care less about green.

David Senf, a researcher for IDC Canada Ltd., asked a series of “green” questions in a recent survey of approximately 200 business and IT decision-makers. Some of the results were disconcerting.

While a strong majority agreed global climate change was real, 14 per cent said they didn’t believe it was happening.

A total of 53 per cent said global climate change would have a neutral impact on their businesses. In fact 19 per cent, or one in five respondents, said they believed global climate change would never impact their businesses negatively. Approximately 13 per cent actually believed there would be a positive or strongly positive impact due to global climate change.

Senf seemed somewhat dismayed that a significant segment of respondents may even be living in denial.

“I think the marketing of the value of being green is going to miss the mark, unfortunately, a lot of the time in Canada right now,” he says. “But, I think it’s a good thing that the vendors do push a green agenda. That can only help firms recognize that it is real and it is a pressing issue, and they do need to do something about it now.”

In a survey of server hardware spending conducted earlier this year by IT World Canada Inc., less than two per cent ranked the green concept of reduced power consumption as among the top two considerations for purchase. Purchase price (almost 60 per cent) and system performance (approximately 55 per cent) were much more desirable to approximately 300 readers of Computerworld Canada who said they are responsible for or are key influencers in the purchase of server equipment for their companies.

Green is a well intentioned idea for IT, but doesn’t yet motivate most buyers, unless of course there’s a buck or two to be gained. Hence much of the green-IT discussion nowadays focuses on energy conservation to the extent that there’s money to be saved. So when most IT buyers think “green” and when most IT vendors sell “green,” they’re really talking about reducing energy costs.

“According to information I’ve seen, data centre power consumption is growing by half every two to three years, even as energy prices continue to rise,” says Charles King, principal analyst for researchers Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif. “That creates a potential crunch in both power costs and availability, depending on location and region, for many companies.”

However, most of the “green” IT equipment being offered on the market tends to be point-products that adhere to what King calls the “classic hammer and nail” analogy.

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything in the world looks like a nail. The result: Processor manufacturers talk up the benefits of low-power semiconductor technologies while server vendors focus on ‘eco-friendly’ server technologies and solutions,” King says.

While point-products like individual servers or desktops can help curb or lower energy usage, most address only a fraction of what is in fact a much larger problem, he adds.

Michael Turner, a consultant and former IT professional with government, thinks we’ll need to go a lot farther than energy conservation to achieve “green” IT.

“There is little attention paid to the reality that much of the equipment we buy has contributed significantly to global pollution and greenhouse gases in its manufacture and delivery to our door,” he says.

“And in terms of disposal, the only issue most IT shops concern themselves with is cost, rather than whether the equipment contains small amounts of heavy metals or other nasty bits that we should take care not to release into the soil and water.”

The price of green should focus on the price of using products – perhaps a penalty or cost applied to the use of IT that reflects their environmental “load” and disposal costs, Turner says.

Being conscious of power costs is probably the most effective approach to ensuring that those who operate IT infrastructure, and users themselves, are paying close attention to these issues.

Turner referenced his experience to illustrate the latter point. “I was involved in a consulting assignment last year in Australia where we were able to show a state-level government how they could significantly reduce the cost of air travel to send technicians out to repair school and government office building systems upon breakdown, through a combination of predictive maintenance applications and better use of their existing IP network to handle telemetry from building systems, rather than just the office PCs.

“The focus wasn’t environmental, but on saving money,” he says. “But clearly there would be positive environmental impacts as well.”

A fundamental shift in IT green thinking by business would be much more meaningful and could have a much greater impact on the environment. Turner, for one, suggests the greening of IT is less about what’s inside technology and much more to do with how to use IT to achieve green results.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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