The Regulatory Path to Green IT

Are incentives -- or outright regulation -- needed to spur companies to meaningfully curb their energy consumption?

Despite the efforts of Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and others about "Green IT," enterprises may not be responding quickly enough.

Industry watchers agree that chips are becoming faster and more efficient, even as their appetite for power and cooling resources correspondingly slackens. This Green trend, however, entails a cost of its own. In spite of verifiable advances in packaging, cooling, and CMOS efficiency, several countervailing factors (including the explosion in density) are helping negate such advances.

What good -- from a Green perspective -- is shrinking a chip to make it faster, more efficient, or cooler-running if the process of miniaturization lets chipmakers pack additional chips onto the same die? In other words, even as chip sizes shrink and the power requirements of individual chips dwindle, the growing density of microprocessors -- which today pack two or four cores on a single chip -- actually ups the power-consumption ante (see http://redmondmag.com/news/print.asp?EditorialsID=9432).

Consider IBM, which has been at the forefront of the industry-wide Green IT push; last year it famously touted a $1 billion Project Big Green initiative (see http://esj.com/Case_Study/article.aspx?EditorialsID=2615). In spite of Big Blue's Big Green efforts, however, a number of observers -- including both customers and industry analysts -- have claimed that IBM's green aspirations don't go far enough (see http://esj.com/Case_Study/article.aspx?EditorialsID=2615).

IBM itself seems increasingly sensitive to such claims. Late last year, for example, it attempted to shore up a key aspect of its Green IT marketing -- the recasting of System z mainframe as a seminal platform for Green computing -- by establishing Big Iron's environmental bona-fides.

To that end, Big Blue touted its distributed-server-to-mainframe data center consolidation effort (see http://esj.com/Case_Study/article.aspx?EditorialsID=2615) as well as a new energy efficiency rating for its System z mainframes (see http://esj.com/enterprise/article.aspx?EditorialsID=2848).

Earlier this month, IBM again tried to trumpet its Green IT initiatives -- this time highlighting the steps it's taking to reduce its carbon footprint.

Wayne Kernochan, a principal with consultancy InfoStructure Associates, was impressed by the news. Unlike a lot of presentations for the media, Kernochan says, Big Blue's event showcased substance and out-of-the-box thinking. "The event was notable because, in contrast to most recent 'green' IT vendor briefings, it focused on taking a global and comprehensive view," he says. "Instead of focusing on efforts to reduce data center energy output, it asked the much broader question: 'How is IBM doing in its overall carbon reduction efforts, and what kind of effect are we having on our customers' efforts in that direction?'"

It's a more complicated problem than you might think, Kernochan stresses. For one thing, Green IT isn't just about reducing processor power and cooling requirements -- it's about organizations achieving reductions in their overall carbon footprints, which is (admittedly) a difficult task in a climate in which system performance and storage density requirements continue to explode.

High Impact

"[R]ecent U.N. reports suggest that the 'minimum effective requirement' for minimizing global warming is to reduce global energy emissions every year in every area with a significant energy impact," Kernochan points out.

The IT industry, taken as a whole, is one such high-impact area: currently, it accounts for about 2 percent of overall carbon emissions, according to U.N. estimates.

That's the aggregate view. The problem -- or the opportunity, depending on your perspective -- is that demand for some IT resources is growing at a faster clip than demand for others. "But not all IT solutions carry the same carbon weight," Kernochan continues. "[S]ome studies suggest that storage deployments will continue to increase by 60 percent per year over the next 5 years, at least -- and storage has a strong relationship to IT energy emissions," he says. "This, in turn, means that the IT industry may need to decrease its energy use per unit of computing by about 40-50 [percent] every year, into the indefinite future, in order to meet the U.N.'s" requirements.

It's in this regard that IBM's Green IT responsiveness needs to be considered. And it's in this regard, Kernochan argues, that Big Blue's newest mainframe deliverable (viz., System z10 EC) is best viewed.

"A recent series of briefings, especially in the mainframe area, makes it clear that … [IBM has been doing] quite a lot [about this]," Kernochan indicates, citing two of z10 EC's most prominent Green IT benefits: "IBM's new z10 EC mainframe offers energy consumption tracking … and also delivers an estimated 16 percent improvement in MIPs/[Kilowatts-per-hour] via [its] 'green design.'

"z10 EC virtualization supports features including more efficient consolidation of multiple servers, more effective use of specialty engines to allow better processing of specific workloads, support for Energy Efficiency Certificates [which let organizations trade data center energy with other shops], … and services that aid the user in including green considerations in the IT business case."

Big Blue's aggressive use of System z10 EC in its own data center consolidation and modernization efforts is just one piece of the puzzle, of course. After all, IBM has developed a number of Green IT monitoring and management services. "The IBM carbon-reduction briefing mentioned such customer-oriented features as carbon management diagnostics, fleet optimization and green procurement aid, assessment services, carbon-use scorecards, financing programs, travel management, carbon audits, and property portfolio analysis," Kernochan points out.

"IBM … is 'eating its own dog food,' with [a] global energy initiative [that helps with] 'reducing or avoiding' approximately 44 percent of [its] own potential carbon emissions."

All the same, Kernochan argues, none of this helps meaningfully reduce the 2 percent figure cited by the U.N.

"[H]ow much effect on the typical customer's IT carbon footprint is this effort having? It seems clear … that the answer is, not enough," he argues. "Data center energy reductions are still primarily driven by immediate crises where customers reach their energy limits and buy a few years with consolidation and redesign," Kernochan continues.

"IBM itself noted that vendor and user efforts were hampered, especially in the U.S., by insufficient incentives to accept the greater costs of implementing some green technologies -- [in other words] by insufficient regulation." Barring regulatory "incentives," the best that technology providers (and the customers that consume their products) can hope for is a zero-growth scenario, he concludes.

"[W]hile IBM is indeed providing an exceptional array of green solutions for itself and its customers, the result appears to be at best a 'zero-growth path' for IT emissions. In effect, in these cases, IT is running hard and staying in the same place."