The business motives for going green

Canadian IT pros and company honchos gathered at the Ontario Science Centre this week for IDC Canada‘s “You, Me, and Green IT” conference to gab about green tech strategies and hear from IBM and Telus about theirs.

The conference got off to a grim start as IDC analysts Lawrence Surtees and Dave Senf painted a bleak portrait of the tech sector’s North American energy usage. Data centres account for 1.5 per cent of all energy usage in the U.S., they said, while the ICT industry guzzles 10 per cent of the world’s energy, comparing its consumption to the aviation industry.

Senf said that 86 per cent of CIOs surveyed by IDC recently believed that climate change was real; however, only 66 per cent didn’t think that global climate change would affect their businesses over the next three years.

Said Surtees: “This is exerting pressure on the business, and it’s driving a world-wide industrial and economic restructuring.” He said that three-quarters of the businesses surveyed were investing in green IT. Overall, the reasons cited in descending order included cost savings, protecting the environment, supporting corporate values, meeting regulatory requirements, and brand reputation.

When it came to the green-implementation wish-list, the analysts, said that companies were crying out for more how-to information, a green IT business case, examples and case studies, and numerical proof that green IT actually helps the environment.

During the following panel, David McLaughlin, the CEO of the independent federal organization National Roundtable on the Environment, said that businesses aren’t getting green enough due to a lack of proper inspiration.

He said, “There’s a failure of not having regulations and incentives.” This could leave companies in the lurch once energy legislation comes in. “We’re going to be paying for carbon eventually, so it’s pick your poison.”

The idea of carbon tax could have an effect on the IT manager on the ground, said Senf-but it’s all for the good. “Initially, such a change would increase their workload, and make that change difficult at first, but once that technology-whether it be virtualization storage or just trying to reduce the carbon footprint-is in place, you’re now able to move forward.”

The learning curve can be tough for the users, too. Glen Tai, manager of client support services with the Toronto-based Beverage manufacturer Parmalat Canada, said that even the smallest changes can throw off the users, wreaking havoc on the help desk. “Take (desktop) hibernation-if their power options have been changed, (they constantly call the help desk to see what’s wrong). It is made easier, though, if it comes from management. It’s a whole shift for (the users).”

The energy spending problem can stem from obliviousness, according to energy management solution provider Scott Rouse, a managing partner with the Toronto-based Energy @ Work. “I don’t see (IT staff) asking for hard numbers…We need that transparency to inspire people to take action,” he said. Rouse suggests that regular workstation and data centre audits and optimization to determine where exactly the energy is going and start a solid business case.

Zero Footprint founder Ron Dembo put it more succinctly: “There’s a lot of smart people in this room doing smart things, but the way we manage energy is dumb.” Part of the problem, he said, is that energy is invisible, which is why audit and detailed reporting of actual energy use are indeed important. Zero Footprint, for example, peddles a software-as-a-service, Web-based carbon counter for businesses.

They’re not the only ones offering a green tool: IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) vice-president of global technology services Steven Sams spoke about the company’s Energy Efficiency Assessment service, which offers businesses and their data centres consulting and implementation of green tech to lower costs and improve energy efficiency with up to 53 per cent annual cost savings and 40 per cent annual savings on actions with a 2-year-or-less time of return.

These projects fall under Big Blue’s “Project Big Green”, which is based on a five-prong green approach. It includes diagnosing the energy consumption, which can be done with the IBM System Director suite or Tivoli, both of which got green-friendly features recently that help data centre admins track energy usage.

Building greener data centres is also key, since, he said, a 2005 Nemertes study found that 87 per cent of data centres were built pre-2001. Retrofitting is also a good solution; companies can input better cooling systems that use water or “stored cold” to cool instead of air, which is inefficient for cooling, Sams said.

Virtualization and consolidating servers is another component of the program, and one that has served IBM well internally. Over ten years, IBM cut its number of host data centres from 155 to seven, its Web hosting centres from 80 to five, its networks from 31 to one, and its number of applications from 15,000 to 4,700. It has also gone from using 3,900 servers to having 33 system z mainframes running Linux. (Sams also said that IBM is now working on a new server that would drastically reduce heat costs and expenditure via a built-in, green-friendly cooling rack.)

When it comes to being green-friendly, telco Telus (TSX: T) wants to be the “premiere corporate citizen,” according to the company’s director of environment Joe Pach, who spoke via videoconference from Vancouver in an effort to save the eco-unfriendly flight East.

The company has recycled over 42,000 phones, and achieved a 10 per cent reduction in energy use between 2003 and 2007. It’s achieved this through eco-friendly fleet management, thin client use, green construction on all new buildings, partnering with the local hydro company for better energy practices, and increasing its teleconferencing by over a quarter last year (and tracking the ROI from this via its Teletrips tool) and expanding telework options for its employees.

The employees are an important part of the company’s green achievements, said Pach-Telus has 30 green teams across Canada that work to increase corporate eco-responsibility. It was their suggestion that they retrofit facilities with automated lighting and mechanics-which netted Telus $1.5-million in savings.

Employee participation is also driving the green revolution at Public Works and Government Services, said Sonya Brooks, director of small business solutions for the office of the CIO in the information technology services branch.

“People are really supporting it-there are many committees and people are really conscious. As soon as we send out an e-mail saying something like, ‘you need to keep your PCs on,’ we get back a dozen angry replies saying, ‘What do you mean, “leave them on?’” She attributes it partly to the younger generation’s lifelong familiarity with the cause, which is now filtering its way into the enterprise-along with all its other green friends.

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