BI: Green Data and Marketing Spin

The parade of "green" data has arrived -- though most of it is one marketing pitch after another. Meanwhile, real problems and likely solutions stay on the sidelines.

First came the spotted rhino. Its picture showed up on a mailer for a data analytics solution. I couldn't tell what the product had to do with a rhinoceros, nor did I expect a parade of marketing pitches to follow. Then came the laughing zebra on behalf of a reporting package -- but not even then did I expect a wave of pitches for "green." Boy, did that wave of "green" come.

Practitioners of the marketing sciences have forever recycled themes plucked from the zeitgeist. In the "green" parade, many of the "green" acts are colorful and creative, and most deserve the label "100% post-consumer waste." Who knows, that might be one of the parade's next acts.

I got a kick out of one act in particular that cried "green!" It offered a chance to win a trip to a PGA Championship. You can imagine how the idea came up. It's odd, though, that any careful marketer pitching "green" would associate a product with a golf course -- most of which are green only to the eye.

I keep hoping for deeper green. Like so many fun parades, the origins of this one are serious -- and BI has become a tool for real progress. Last year when DM Review asked several leading BI and data warehouse consultants about BI as a green tool, they responded vigorously.

“How do you know the data warehouse and BI movement hasn’t been active there?” responded Adrienne Tannenbaum, president of Database Design Solutions, Inc. “Maybe you don’t hear from them because they don’t have as much money to publicize their work!”

Although not green in and of themselves, BI programs can enable serious green consequences. For example, UPS's "No Left Turns" program is one that has gained notice. It uses analysis of delivery routes to reduce needless idling and accidents, wrote Sid Adelman of Sid Adelman and Associates.

Other examples Adelman cited include asset analysis to help organizations avoid the purchase of unnecessary equipment; inventory analysis to help reduce waste and transportation cost; analysis of packaging and shipping manufactured goods to reduce packaging and, the packages being lighter, cost less to ship.

In the same article, data warehousing expert Chuck Kelley cited an obvious but little acknowledged use of data warehouse technology: scientists use it to measure global warming.

However, all that analysis burns data like a Hummer burns gas. As of 2005, BI and other data consumers guzzle as much power as all U.S. televisions. That’s twice what it was in 2000, according to a study by Jonathan Koomey, a consulting professor at Stanford University and a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The annualized cost of cooling and power is now approaching the cost of the IT equipment, he said, and it continues to grow.

Data storage has inspired its own breed of "green" claims, and at least one executive who manages large chunks of data expresses skepticism.

"It's hype," wrote the executive, who asked not to be identified. "All computer industry players are seeking to portray themselves as green. Vendors are making a green virtue of things they wanted to do anyway. They're also finding customers who want to be seen as green without doing the hard analysis to really be green."

Virtualization, for example, has had a green effect that was unintended. The main incentive was to make use of otherwise idle capacity. Reduced energy consumption was a byproduct. The improvement is fine, but it’s lazy.

"Storage makers also have a few tricks up their sleeves," he wrote. “Most create greenness out of marketing.” They pitch big, integrated storage appliances to replace many smaller, discrete ones. That saves power, the executive wrote, "but their products had nothing to do with greenness, and it's even arguable whether they really deliver it."

Technology that allows disk drives in large arrays to power down when not in use is the only one he respects. It’s comparable to hybrid cars turning off the internal-combustion engine when idling at a traffic light -- but it’s still exotic and not yet proven in the market.

One promising solution isn't technological at all, it's organizational: rearrange the incentives. Koomey said that in most companies, IT buys IT equipment while some other department pays the power and cooling bill. He said that if the whole cost were put onto the IT tab, those who buy the computers would pay more attention to energy efficiency.

The environment will go away -- as a marketing ploy. The last act in the green parade will round the corner and the only buzz will come from honeybees.

I've actually heard good things about the analytics package fronted by the spotted rhino and the laughing zebra. Why the false fronts? Why not good, plain English, perhaps just a story about how each one helped a customer?

One marketer seems to be on to something. Gordon Daly, director of marketing at DataMentors, issues a nice little e-zine -- which really does zing right through my protective crust.

Plain, simple, honest, and direct communication is possible. Daly uses no "green" terminology, no jargon, no carnival-like array of entry points. From within acres of pristine white space, he writes simply. I actually started reading and got all the way to the third paragraph. Getting that far in any e-zine gives me goose bumps -- and that's a species any marketing director in this industry can fight for.

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