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Implementing Green IT

Ask yourself these 5 questions to gain the energy efficiency, reliability, and business continuity that comes with green IT.
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By Jennifer Zaino

Richard Baughman, director of IT at Shentel Telecommunications, a diversified communications company, hasn't thought about Green IT yet. Not that there isn't plenty of talk about the topic from the media, analysts, and advocacy groups, but for many IT leaders in smaller businesses, such as Baughman, the trend hasn't gained traction.

Shentel Communications, for example, has between 30 and 40 servers in its production, failover, and test/development environments. The total cost of running the data center where most of those servers are co-located is relatively minor and Baughman has bigger fish to fry than cutting data-center power consumption. Shentel's business is growing. To support that the IT group is now overhauling the infrastructure from a 15-year old green screen application, built primarily to run a telephone company, to a system that can easily scale to support new services. Baughman and his team are focusing on that project to provide the business with better CRM functionality, an integrated dispatch application for orders and tickets, a flow-through provisioning system, a self-care platform, and a customer care dashboard.

"As a small company, our resources are limited and focused on a couple of higher-priority projects that will have significant value to the business -- going green with our data center would not have that big of an impact to our business costs," says Baughman. "I can see us doing something in the future about this, but as of right now, it's not a priority."

Nor is it likely to be a priority for most smaller companies in the immediate future. Some experts speculate that it will be a good five years before smaller businesses start feeling pressure to green their data centers. In contrast, large companies increasingly are all too aware of the toll their expanding data centers are taking on their organizations: a study released by AMD found that in 2005, data centers and their associated infrastructure consumed the energy equivalent of five 1,000 MW power plants -- that's 5 million kW. Not only does that have an impact on the environment, but also it adds up to real money in power costs.

In smaller companies, data centers may be running in an inefficient way that introduces unnecessary costs. However, some recommended practices that work for larger companies may be overkill in these environments. For example, if your data center has less than five server racks, following hot aisle/cold aisle practices -- a method of cooling servers that produces constant air circulation through the racks -- isn't necessarily pragmatic. On the other hand, even an organization with just a few servers in a closet may realize some small but happy returns -- not only in energy efficiency, but also in reliability and business continuity -- by virtualizing them down to a single physical system.

The key to reaping the benefits of green IT is to think smartly about where it makes sense for your organization -- if not today, then in a very near tomorrow, and if not in your data center, elsewhere within the company. With that in mind, here are some questions to consider as you contemplate a potentially greener future.

1. Do you know what your data center costs are now?
The answer is, probably not, because very few organizations have discreetly metered their data center and data center infrastructure. "But it can be 20 to 60 times as much per square foot as the rest of your commercial space," says Deborah Grove, principal at Grove Associates, an advisory services firm that specializes in global innovation, sustainability, and green IT strategies.

By installing a data-center power meter, you can begin looking at how much power your data center is consuming. How you'll put that knowledge to work is another question. Organizations such as The Green Grid, a global consortium dedicated to advancing energy efficiency in data centers and business computing ecosystems, are trying to develop some useful power efficiency metrics, but they're not finalized yet. "I would say they're about a year away from critical mass," says Aaron Hay, research consultant with Info-Tech Research Group. Still, it's worth being ahead of that curve. "Until you can get a kilowatt/hour rating on the data center and find out what you have consumed in the last year, it will be difficult to use their metrics at all," he says.

2. Can you take simple steps to a greener data center?
The data center doesn't have to be a little slice of the Arctic in your office building. "Bring the temperature up four or five degrees in the room -- that's a good start," says Grove. In fact, current recommendations from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers put data center temperature in the allowable range of 59 F to 89.6 F, meaning that a temperature in the high 70s is acceptable, provided relatively humidity stays between 20% and 80%.

And, instead of running air conditioning systems 24/7, most data centers in most parts of the country can implement "free cooling" strategies. Free cooling is the use of air-side and water-side economizers -- using outside air directly when it is cool enough and using cooling towers when it is somewhat warmer. Chillers or compressors are then used only when outside conditions can't support the other two strategies. For example, "in coastal areas of California, data centers can reduce compressor or chiller operation by 6,000 to 8,000 hours per year using free cooling," according to Mark Bramfitt, principal program manager of Pacific Gas and Electric. "We provide financial incentives to support implementation of the systems, making the return on investment extremely attractive."

3. Have you considered all the economic benefits of technologies that promote energy efficiency, such as virtualization?
"Given the three bottom line goals of the green computing initiative -- social responsibility, environmental impact, and economic viability -- the economic viability is a limiting factor. Most people want to do everything to make our environment better, but we cannot economically justify spending $1,000,000 for a $0.01 environmental return," says Michael O'Dell, CIO at Pacific Coast Companies, the subsidiary that acts as the central service provider to the Pacific Coast Building Products group of companies that manufacture and distribute building materials to manufacturers. The company's virtualization of its servers is good for the environment, but an important reason for taking the step was that four servers take up less electricity and are less of a heat load than the 115 servers they replaced.

The power cost savings for servers, however, is just one aspect of the picture around virtualization, says Hay. "Severs may consume a significant amount of energy, so that of course leads to savings on your power bill." Not only are you cutting the power bill for servers, but also because you're generating less heat, the AC doesn't have to work as hard and the ventilation systems don't have to be working to the same level of performance. But the main source of savings is far-reaching, in its effect on an IT organization's maintenance load. Take a hypothetical company running 10 servers: "If those 10 could be consolidated into two, with 10 server instances on those two machines, that right there is eight servers turned off. So even on that scale there are some fairly significant cost-savings to be had," he says. "But the main source of savings is not having to maintain, replace, and support 10 [physical] systems."

4. Can you make green IT someone else's problem?
If you take advantage of software-as-a-service applications, for anything from CRM to Office-like productivity products, then you can, at least to some degree. "There are lots of Web-based companies providing alternatives [to traditional on-premise software] at a very low cost per month, and that's a great boon to SMBs," says Grove. "They may find they need less computing power on site because they can use these software-as-services, and then [energy-efficiency] is their providers' problem."

5. Can you make a difference outside the data center?
Yes, and in ways that don't cost a lot or require a ton of effort. Regardless of the fact that there are still questions around data center metrics, "it doesn't mean that right now small to medium companies can't make gains. Most SMBs probably aren't even turning off computers when employees go away from their desks," says Grove. And not just at night, but when they go to lunch, too. "A lot of PCs use 60% of energy when they are in sleep mode, and most people don't realize that."

It may take IT a day or two to set up a PC power management policy and software across the network, says Hay, but organizations usually realize a payoff on the license for each PC in just eight to 20 weeks, and shave $50 to $75 off the power bill per PC per year, says Hay.

Other easy-to-take steps include making smart buys the next time you're upgrading PCs, notebooks, or monitors. Check out the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), a government rating of environmental attributes sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency that will be expanded to include servers next year. Participation is voluntary by vendors, and products can earn gold, silver, or bronze ratings, based on how they conform to various environmentally sensitive criteria. Hay says it's very rare for a silver or bronze rated model to cost more than an unrated model, so, "if you're going to do a refresh, get at least a silver EPEAT-rated PC, so there's less environmental impact from cradle to grave, at no additional cost," he says.

Another no-brainer: Check for Energy Star compliance -- there's a new ranking about every two years and each time around the rating gets more aggressive about power consumption.

Hay also cautions IT leaders not to be discouraged if they're not wowed upfront by the savings they'll reap from whatever green IT efforts they try to implement. "In a small business, because their power consumption compared to a Fortune 500 is not that great, you may not see a significant savings. Five hundred dollars per month for power -- if you get to $400 a month, that $100 seems like a drop in the bucket," he says. "But if every SMB made that 20% improvement in its power bill, think about how much better off the entire spectrum of business would be, in terms of power costs, energy demand, and environmental impact."

Jennifer Zaino has served in senior and executive editor roles at publications including InformationWeek, Network Computing, HomePC, and PC Magazine. Currently, she is a freelancer covering business technology issues, including IT management and best practice frameworks, IT architectures, and virtualization.

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