Twelve answers to your green IT questions

The time has come for CIOs to get with green. But if you need help in figuring out how to make your IT operations more environmentally friendly, this article will provide you some help. Here are the answers to 12 fundamental questions around green IT.

Q: What is sustainable IT?

A: Sustainable, or ‘green’, IT is a catch-all term used to describe the manufacture, management, use and disposal of information technology in a way that minimizes damage to the environment. As a result, the term has many different meanings, depending on whether you are a manufacturer, manager or user of technology.

Q: What is sustainable IT manufacturing?

A: Sustainable IT manufacturing refers to methods of producing products in a way that does not harm the environment. It encompasses everything from reducing the amount of harmful chemicals used in products (such as lead and mercury) to making them more energy efficient and packaging them with recycled materials.

Q: What is sustainable IT management and use?

A: Sustainable IT management and use has to do with the way a company manages its IT assets. It includes purchasing energy-efficient desktops, notebooks, servers and other IT equipment, as well as managing the power consumption of that equipment. It also refers to the environmentally safe disposal of that equipment, through recycling or donation at the end of its lifecycle.

Q: What is sustainable IT disposal?

A: Sustainable IT disposal refers to the safe disposal of IT assets. It ensures that old computer equipment does not end up in a landfill, where the toxic substances it contains can leach into groundwater, among other problems. Many of the major hardware manufacturers offer take-back programs, so IT departments don’t have to take responsibility for disposal.

Q: What is the goal of sustainable IT?

A: The goal behind most green initiatives, including green IT, is to promote environmental sustainability. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainability as an approach to economic development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Q: What does it have to do with me?

A: No one seriously disputes that global warming is due to human activity. And IT is an energy hog. Gartner estimates that power consumption by computers accounts for 2 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That’s roughly equal to the carbon output of the airline industry.

It is hard to determine how much CO2 any single company’s computers generate, although researchers are trying to figure a way. Howard Rubin, a research associate with the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, suggests that the IT operations of computing-intensive industries like financial services and telecommunications generate more CO2 per Rs 4 crore in revenue than other industries. IT may account for about 10 percent of a company’s energy consumption and 10 percent of its CO2 emissions, according to Chris Mines, senior VP with Forrester Research.

Many companies also have to comply with regulations that restrict plant emissions or the use and disposal of toxic materials. Like IT improves business processes, it can improve how companies manage what goes into their products.

For example, furniture maker Herman Miller uses IT to help inform designers about the chemistry and the sustainable properties of hundreds of materials. A materials database, created using Microsoft Access, captures information on potential manufacturing materials and communicates it to the design team. “The IT function and IT support is vital to that process,” says Mike McCluskey, project manager for product development IT.

In a CIO magazine column, Dan Esty, author of Green to Gold: When Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value and Build Competitive Advantage, writes that “marrying information-age tools such as data mining and advanced modeling techniques to environmental challenges holds potential to propel some companies ahead of their competitors because they can ‘see’ through data where their industry is headed.”

Mines at Forrester says that CEOs will eventually see environmental sustainability as a better way to do business, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because major stakeholders — including shareholders and customers — will demand it. Because IT is a large contributor to the greenhouse gas emission problem, it also has an opportunity to be a big part of the solution.

Q: Can it help my company?

A: There are some steps IT departments can take toward becoming green that don’t cost a lot. You can start by reminding your IT staff to turn off their PCs or shut off the lights before leaving for the day — and championing such behavior companywide.

Meanwhile, there are many IT investments you probably want to make anyway that will also reduce your impact on the environment. Virtualization technologies, server consolidation, PC power management and deployment of more efficient equipment when you do a refresh can reduce energy consumption while simultaneously improving IT operations.

Then, there are intangible benefits. Mines says a green reputation helps with employee retention and recruitment. Employers “see the surveys that say young people are greener, and that’s a differentiator for them in the war for talent.” There’s some evidence that more people seek to do business with companies that offer green services and products, or that have a proven track record in corporate social responsibility. An October 2007 study on climate change conducted by Accenture found that nine out of 10 consumers worldwide would switch to energy providers whose products and services are designed to reduce carbon emissions, even if it meant having to pay a little extra.

Systems you need to comply with environmental regulations may cost you, and there’s not much you can do about it. But there is packaged software that can help. For example, Synapsis, a software and consulting company, offers an Environmental Material Aggregation and Reporting System, which helps companies manage and report the material content of their products. Eviance offers tools for environmental health, safety management and compliance.

Q: How can I cut my energy bills?

A: There are two ways that IT managers can help to reduce their companies’ energy consumption: run data centers more efficiently and manage desktops more efficiently.

Q: How can I make my data center more efficient?

A: An August 2007 EPA report on data center efficiency concluded that unless US companies change the way they design, build and operate data centers, annual data center electricity costs could reach Rs 29,600 crore in 2011.

The first step for CIOs who want to cut data center energy costs is to get to know their data centers in detail. A good place to start is with a True Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) assessment, which accounts for the cost of building and owning a data center facility, along with the usual hardware purchase and maintenance costs that go along with operating it. (The term True TCO was coined by The Uptime Institute, an IT research organization, which provides a tool for modeling it.)

It’s also a good idea to get to know your facilities managers. According to Jonathan Koomey, a staff scientist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the facilities departme

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