Q&A: What You Need to Know About Green IT

What's hype and what's fact, how you can judge green savings, and how industries and government are getting involved in green IT.

There's lots of buzz around "green IT," but the term still is saddled with misconceptions about the technology and its benefits. To separate fact from hype, and to learn what initiatives can help your data center be greener, we turned to John Lamb, author of The Greening of IT (2009, Pearson/IBM Press).

Enterprise Strategies: Is green IT of importance to enterprises worldwide?

John Lamb: Absolutely. I'm currently working as an IT architect for a large enterprise in Johannesburg, South Africa. In addition to great interest in the Copenhagen environmental meetings, the newspapers in South Africa print many articles on the fast-growing electricity costs for the country. Also, the company I'm working with in Johannesburg has been told by the local power company that they cannot add any more servers to their data center because the power currently being supplied is at a maximum. Green IT is important worldwide from several fronts, including energy cost, environmental aspects (e.g., if you're reducing electricity consumption, you're helping reduce the need to burn fossil fuels to create the electricity) and power company limits on power available to data centers.

What are the biggest misconceptions about green IT and its benefits?

The biggest misconception is that green IT is something you should do to help save the planet but it will be expensive. That's not at all the case. Green IT is first of all a way for companies to save money on their IT expenses and at the same time significantly improve the management and overall technology for their data centers and all IT.

Is there much hype in the announcements made by enterprises on how environmentally friendly they are?

For data centers, the cost savings incentives are so great that there would usually be little need for an organization to exaggerate how environmentally friendly they are. Although there is some of that going on in the industry, companies are motivated by the economic benefits they have seen. A typical U.S. data center with 25,000 square feet spends approximately $2.6 million for energy per year. Improvements in energy management by using server and storage virtualization, along with energy management software to optimize your data center's use of energy, can save up to 50 percent of those costs. A million-dollar savings is a great motivator to drive interest.

Can an enterprise realize major benefits from green IT in their existing data centers, or do they need to build a new data center?

Energy-saving technologies such as server and data storage virtualization can produce a 50 percent energy savings for new equipment in any data center. Often, basic data center equipment, such as the UPS (uninterrupted power supply) used for backup in case of a power outage, is replaced after many years as part of a company's plan to improve data center reliability. Since power for all IT equipment flows through the UPS, replacing an 80 percent efficient 20-year-old UPS with a new 95 percent efficient model will provide significant energy savings even though the motivation for replacement was based on improving UPS reliability.

Now it's true that a UPS is not something companies would upgrade very often. However, the computer hardware refresh cycle provides a great opportunity to move to green IT. For competitive reasons most companies already refresh their computer hardware -- laptops, desktops, servers, and storage devices -- every three to four years. That refresh cycle provides a recurring opportunity to buy increasingly energy efficient technology such as virtual servers, virtual networks, and virtual data storage. Such virtualization can easily reduce IT power consumption for the replaced equipment by up to 50 percent (see, for example, the EPA “Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency”).

A second compelling reason to move to green IT is that virtualization technology allows you to reduce equipment and system management costs for your data center -- in addition to the energy savings just stated. Data center green technology is based on a solid business case even before we consider the savings from reduced energy costs. There is usually no need to build a brand new data center in order to significantly improve energy efficiency.

How have industry organizations and government bodies been involved in green IT?

Almost every industry organization and many government bodies are involved. These organizations include an alphabet soup of acronyms such as IEEE, ASHRAE, EPA, SPEC, LEED, DOE, EU, NYSERDA, NYSgrid, The Green Grid, and dozens of others. This has resulted in sometimes overlapping energy efficiency metrics. However, this varied work will converge on a few accepted standards for green IT metrics. These metrics will be the standards sanctioned by government organizations such as the EPA.

In the U.S., green IT and green data center metrics will converge on those developed by the EPA. However, the EPA effort is very much a collaborative effort, and all current measurement systems will play a part. To complicate the problem, some measurement systems and certifications, such as the LEED certificates for green buildings, are outside the scope of the EPA standards being developed for green IT. In the future we may have both EPA and SPEC energy efficiency ratings for servers. That dual available metric could be beneficial.

When I go to an appliance store, I can compare energy costs by looking at a yellow sticker. It may not be accurate, but it helps me judge relative energy use between models or brands. Does IT have anything like that now, or is any such rating on the horizon, to help data center managers know what equipment is more efficient?

Yes, the EPA's Energy Star program for workstations is already in place and will continue to improve. A similar program will be used by the EPA for servers. Also, organizations such as SPEC have very comprehensive information on comparing electric power/computer power. The EPA ratings will probably be more general (just like estimated miles per gallon for an automobile). The SPEC ratings (with controlled tests run by the IT manufacturers) will probably be much more specific and users will be able to determine more precisely how energy efficient a server will be for their specific server needs (including use of virtual server technology).

Ratings for server efficiency -- and much more for data center energy efficiency -- will always be complicated and very dependent on the IT technology needs of each individual customer. Because of this complexity and the continuing evolution of IT technology and user needs, the ratings will need to evolve. Having several ratings with some overlap will provide the competitive aspect to continually improve green IT metrics and rating systems. We will all benefit.

Are these industry and government initiatives sufficient or is more involvement needed? If so, what form should that involvement take?

Governments have become very much involved in IT energy use and related environmental regulation. The large amount of electrical power being spent on IT has been a significant motivator in attracting both government and environmental group attention. Industry organizations are establishing efficiency metrics at the server and data center level to integrate facilities and IT resources. Many IT companies and governments are addressing the situation from end to end. For example, at the server end, power management features are being used, and at the data center, integrated IT/facilities modular solutions are being used.

Although governments have a vital role in the push to green IT, complete success will require the continued collaboration among many groups, including your company, IT technology vendors, data center design-and-build businesses, energy utilities, governments, and organizations such as the Green Grid and the Uptime Institute. In short, almost everyone can collaborate on green IT, since almost everyone is a user of IT through PCs, the Internet, cell phones, etc. Many states and countries do have tax incentives in place. My feeling is that the more incentives and the more collaboration among the different groups, the better.

What are some good first steps for an enterprise to implement green IT?

Communicating with industry organizations and government bodies would be a good first step. Setting up an organization within your company to drive the effort would be another early step. Start by making one person responsible and give that person a title (like "Energy Czar"!). Web sites such as the U.S. Department of Energy or the EPA provide a wealth of information on green IT.

What were some of the challenges in writing a book on such a broad topic as green IT?

There is a great deal of innovation going on in the field all the time. The whole world is concerned about going green and that adds to the excitement. With all the research going into energy efficiency, we should expect continuous improvement not only in technology, but in the government and industry standards and metrics used in determining the goals for green data centers and green IT in general.

To keep up on all the interesting work going on, read the journals (including ESJ, of course). If you're interested in all the technical details, here's a good list of government and non-profit groups:

For-profit energy utilities are generally not trying to make a profit by helping you go green (the opposite could be said since they won't sell you so much electricity when your data centers go green). Check out the Web site for California's PG&E on energy saving recommendations and rebates for going green.

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