Green IT--how CIOs can help

perspective IT has a key role to play in making businesses more energy efficient. An analyst shares how.
Written by Simon Perry, Contributor

perspective In a recent briefing regarding the 'greenness' of a vendor's new hardware device, the product manager assured the Quocirca analysts in attendance: "We're not trying to save the polar bears or anything."

What a coincidence, then, when weeks later a different vendor's pitch included a photo of a polar bear looking worried about the size of the iceberg upon which it perched.

Meanwhile yet another vendor stated during a recent conversation that its efforts weren't at all focused on sustainability strategies but rather only on efficiency.

Which all leads to the question: is there really any value in 'green IT' beyond marketing? And what role should the IT department play in this arena?

First let's look at the case against there being any value in green IT. Much of this 'greenwash' is so transparent and over-spun that it needs no further analysis but for one point: many IT departments are perhaps just as cynical in their embracing of green tech as the worst vendor marketeers.

After all, IT budget requests are more likely to get approved if they are seen to be supportive of business level efficiency and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies. This is the old trick of loading up a business justification with a long list of 'oh...and it does this too!'.

The case for green IT gets a lot more interesting--and a lot more challenging to deliver. First, it is worth pointing out that the word 'green' has been used a lot thus far and the word 'sustainable' hardly at all. There is an important distinction between the two. Green has simply become an almost meaningless synonym for 'less', 'lite', or 'eco-something'.

In comparison, sustainability refers to the process of living and working in a manner that conserves resources and uses them in an efficient manner--and in a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own energy requirements.

It is easy to be green but a lot harder to be sustainable. So what can CIOs and the IT department do to support sustainability?

Whether in the data center, the office or on the road, reducing the resources a business consumes is a perfect play for IT.

Take the concept of a paperless office--an idea that has been around for ages. Some believe it is still an unrealistic dream but in fact there are many real alternatives to eliminating office print load. Quocirca's research into managed print services is a solid backgrounder to understanding an area that can deliver rapid and measurable benefits.

Meanwhile both the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the IEA (International Energy Agency) say efficiency improvements will help reduce the emissions associated with energy production and consumption. In the short to medium term, the vast majority of businesses will be focused solely on the energy consumption end of that equation.

This is an area where IT can contribute strongly due to the relatively high energy appetite of data centers and office spaces, as long as several important caveats are understood.

Firstly, energy efficiency is not the sole measure in comparing the environmental impact of a device. For instance nitrogen trifluoride, a gas used by most manufacturers of flat screens--but not used to manufacture CRT displays--is estimated by the Australian scientific research organization CSIRO to be up to 17,000 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Secondly, energy efficiency ratings such as Energy Star are often relative, not absolute. Take, for instance, monitor screens: the standard defines an absolute energy consumption level for 'sleep' and 'off' modes, while the allowed consumption when the monitor is on varies in relation to the screen resolution.

Lastly, a common mistake is to assume energy efficiency is useless in the absence of absolute energy usage capping. Whether at the server or data center level, much green marketing focuses on the ability to perform the same amount of workload with less energy.

This seems all well and good, if it weren't for the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate which states that energy cost per unit of work decreases as it becomes more financially viable to perform more units of work. So unless a business sets absolute targets on the energy usage of IT, efficiency efforts may be wasted at best, while at worst may actually encourage more wasteful use of IT services.

In the end, IT should do what it has always done best: support the strategic efforts of the business. If a business has a sustainability strategy, it will fall to IT to help achieve it. This may include everything from setting up tools to measure energy usage, to enabling employees to telecommute.

In the absence of that business leadership any effort by IT is laudable but lamentably doomed to deliver little real value.

Simon Perry is a principal associate analyst at Quocirca. He and five other analysts contribute to a regular column in ZDNet Asia's sister site, Silicon.com, that seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking.

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