Green IT: Get the Facts First

by Richard Hodges and Walker White

The six learned men in the parable of the blind men and the elephant each has a partly right (but completely wrong) idea of what an elephant is. The one finding the leg, thinks it’s like a tree; the one encountering the trunk, a snake. (See http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Blindmen_and_the_Elephant.)

Even without eyesight, the dispute of the six men could have easily settled their argument by the basic step of collecting good data before forming an opinion. The same goes for much of the current discussion going on about greening IT. A recent podcast posted by the head of the data center-focused Uptime Institute concluded the only place it made sense for enterprises to start the process of reducing power consumption by IT is in their data center. In contrast, a manufacturer of power management software for PCs asserts that those desktop devices are the biggest IT power draw and the quickest place to show ROI for energy efficiency initiatives in IT.

Who's right? Unfortunately, in virtually every enterprise, nobody knows. Even worse, they don't have the necessary data to begin answering questions about how much power they consume, what the associated greenhouse gas emissions are, what electricity costs are for IT today and will be in the future, and where they can begin cutting costs and reaping eco-benefits.

In the coming years, every enterprise will have to deal with both the costs and eco-impacts of IT power consumption. It's unavoidable, and although data centers are certainly hot spots of IT power use, every enterprise will need to create a systematic, strategic, and systemic (S3) approach to the problem, starting with a baseline inventory and analysis of current consumption.

Measuring Consumption Means Understanding IT

Just as data processing became an outmoded term (replaced by Information Technology), IT has become information and communication technology (ICT). In the fully networked world of the 21st century, even ICT no longer reflects the breadth of energy-consuming devices that are an integral part of modern life. Radio transmissions are delivered over the Internet to desktop PCs. Television shows are viewed on mobile smart phones. We have electronic books, smart appliances, and intelligent buildings. All of these are examples of a converged technology world where “IT,” buildings, consumer electronics, and appliances cannot be separated into discrete systems.

Given this changing landscape, IT professionals must, willingly or not, be responsible for managing their expanding domain of interconnected devices, including managing power consumption. The problem IT professionals face is getting good data, detailing the components of each device, and determine how much power each is actually using. Although IT is a large and fast-growing segment of electricity demand, the demand is spread out across an array of disparate devices for which the actual power draw is unknown.

ICT is responsible for between 3 and 7 percent of the total current electricity consumption within the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Widely quoted reports from analysts suggest that the ICT industry produces about 2 percent to 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, on par with the aviation industry. However, additional studies taking a broader view of what is included in the category ICT and report higher figures.

What isn’t in question is the rapid growth of electricity consumption by ICT and consumer electronics. A 2003 report from Germany concluded that power demand for ICT would increase 45 percent by 2010. Studies in the U.K. and U.S. indicate that electricity use by ICT equipment is doubling every five years. A 2008 forecast from the METI predicted that ICT would consume 20 percent of all electricity used in Japan by 2025.

In a time when every enterprise is under pressure to both reduce costs and their “carbon footprint,” double-digit growth rates of electricity used are bound to become a target. Managers of IT systems will be forced to find ways to at least slow the rate of growth, if not produce absolute reductions.

Reducing ICT Electricity Consumption

Even within the four walls of an enterprise data center, reducing IT power consumption is a “game of inches” that requires efficiency gains in hundreds of different systems, sub-systems, and devices. When the universe of devices to be managed is spread out across the entire enterprise landscape, the difficulty of identifying (and implementing) realistic, cost-effective solutions is greater than for projects such as lighting retrofits or HVAC upgrades. However, as the other systems in buildings are made more efficient and IT power use grows, there will be increasing pressure to figure out what is actually consuming electricity and how to reduce consumption.

When asked what percentage of electricity consumption in a building is due to IT equipment, most people think of small numbers such as 3 percent or 5 percent. In fact, research in the U.S., Europe, and Scandinavia all indicate that direct electricity consumption for IT “plug load” is around 20 percent to 25 percent of the total in commercial office buildings. Experience in the field shows that in buildings with a high density of IT equipment and efficient lighting and HVAC systems, the percentage is much higher.

In addition to the direct load, there is also the indirect load of the power used to remove the heat produced by IT electricity consumption from buildings. The actual effect of IT cooling requirements on building HVAC costs can vary widely depending on the type of building and climate.

The first step toward achieving measurable improvements in energy efficiency is collecting data on the actual end-use electricity consumption. Without a comprehensive and accurate inventory of equipment, which few organizations have, it is impossible to know where to start in determining which efficiency initiatives will produce the best results. Typically this lack of data leads to either ignoring the problem or to choosing initiatives on the basis of immediate visibility or ease of implementation.

The rapidly increasing rate of IT power consumption will ensure that the issue cannot be ignored indefinitely. The rapidly escalating cost of electricity bills suggests that IT managers will be forced to address the issue sooner rather than later. Rather than assuming they know the shape of the green elephant in their living room, IT managers must acquire the tools and skills needed to get objective data on power consumption by the systems they design and manage. Only then will they actually be able to see the real dimensions of their challenge; a challenge that is not going away.

Richard Hodges is the founder and CEO of GreenIT. Since the early 1970s, he has been committed to environmental responsibility, development of appropriate technologies, and the evolution to a sustainable environment. In 2004, Mr. Hodges established GreenIT as the first consultancy to combine those strands into a systemic, systematic, and strategic approach to sustainability for information and communications technology systems. You can reach the author at rhodges@greenit.net.

Walker White is vice president of technology for BDNA. He is responsible for providing guidance to customers on utilizing BDNA's solutions to improve efficiency in their IT environment and for ensuring that customer feedback is incorporated into our products. Prior to his arrival at BDNA, he was a 12 year veteran of Oracle Corporation. During his tenure at Oracle, he served several positions, including vice president of Applications Technology and also chief technologist of Oracle Service Industries. You can reach the author at wwhite@bdna.com.