Friday, October 26, 2007

Strategic steps down the green IT path

Guidance from Forrester Research, along with real-world examples, shed light on the precarious path toward sustainability

Vendor and analysts can talk about the benefits of pursuing sustainable IT practices until they're blue (or green) in the face. The difficulty at this point isn't necessarily understanding the potential benefits for going green; it's knowing where to start and how to proceed.

Fortunately, organizations with expertise on the subject are stepping forward to dispense and demonstrate guidance down the green path. Among them are organizations such as The Green Grid, vendors such as Sun, HP, and Fujitsu, and research companies such as Gartner and Forrester Research. Forrester, in fact, recently released a report titled "Creating the Green IT Action Plan." As the title suggests, it provides high-level advice on the subject.

The first step companies need to take, Forrester recommends, is identifying and prioritizing your goals. That task in and of itself can demonstrate just how complex a green transformation can be.

For example, your goal might be business-oriented, such as reducing electricity consumption or making better use of existing IT equipment. Then again, your main objective may be geared more toward CSR (corporate social responsibility) and environmental stewardship, such as reducing your carbon footprint, and meeting current and future environmental standards.

Tangentially, Gartner's recent report "Conflating Lean and Green Is Unwise" notes that there may be crossovers between the lean objectives and the green ones, but in general, it's best not to lump them together.

Once you know what goals you want to achieve, the next step is assessment, Forrester recommends. It's like joining a gym on Jan. 1 to fulfill a drunken New Year's resolution to get in shape. First, you submit yourself to a series of prods, pokes, pinches, and a weighing to determine how out of shape you are. That way, if you stick to your regimen, you can go through it again in a couple of months to determine how far you've progressed. (Pants falling down to your ankles as you stride down the hallway is another indicator.)

Where was I? Oh, assessment. Your assessment steps will, of course, reflect the objectives you've set. For example, if you're aiming to reduce energy waste in the datacenter, you might measure the facilities PUE (power usage effectiveness), a measurement devised by The Green Grid consortium that's gaining popularity in the IT world. To measure PUE, divide your total facility power by IT equipment power.

By Green Grid's estimates, "PUEs range from rating of 1.3 (77 percent of the total power supplied to the data center is used to power data processing equipment) to a poor ratio of 3.0 (33 percent of total power actually reaches the IT equipment)," according to the Forrester report.

On the CSR side of the spectrum, Forrester suggests you examine your supply chain and procurement process. The supply chain indeed plays direct and indirect roles in your company's overall green picture, a fact not lost on companies such as HP. The company goes to great lengths to ensure its suppliers don't use chemicals that would violate stringent regulations such as ROHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances), which protects HP's bottom line. But it also goes so far as to train its suppliers in places such as China to embrace better environmental and social practices, because it reflects HP's own corporate values.

One other critical piece of advice from Forrester on the subject of assessment: Specify IT's organizational role. "A crucial part of that is identifying the leadership and execution role of IT relative to facilities, HR, legal, and marketing. Green IT must also be explicitly aligned with CSR and other green initiatives including regulatory compliance and reporting. And green IT efforts must fit with the technology organization's anticipated budget and capacity trajectory as dictated by the growth-of-business requirements," the report says.

As a third overall step in crafting your blueprint for a sustainable IT action plan, Forrester recommends going after the low-hanging green fruit; that is, the quick, easy, relatively low-cost steps toward cutting waste. There are plenty of opportunities here: improve datacenter cooling and airflow; cut print waste; and power down PCs and monitors at the end of the day. Savings here can add up, plus they set the tone organization-wide for a green evolution.

Finally, step four. And watch this step, because it's a doozy: "Craft and communicate an action plan." The communication bit is less daunting: It's a matter of effectively promoting the eco-ambitions to employees through various channels, and making sure they're engaged.

But an action plan itself is a complex document. Forrester recommends breaking it down into four components: "revising processes and metrics; optimizing efficiency of existing IT assets; revamping architecture and infrastructure; and [and] positioning IT to enable green business practices."

Revising processes and metrics is pretty clear and highly important. If your goal, for example, is to reduce electricity consumption, you might want to "forge links between IT and facilities" to measure energy consumption and devise methods to measure it. Another procedural shift, drawing from the green supply chain concept, is to review CSR requirements for your suppliers and the methods you use to measure whether your suppliers are meeting them.

Optimizing efficiency of existing IT assets alludes to making the most out of the hardware you already have. Depending on your goals, it might mean a server virtualization project, a storage-consolidation effort, or implementing a system for managing PC power consumption.

Somewhat related, "revamping architecture and infrastructure" means investing in new facilities and gear to meet a green tech goal. If reducing energy consumption is a high priority, you might consider moving from a PC-based office to a thin-client-based office. Building or consolidating an entire datacenter -- a project we've seen companies such as Sun and HP recently undertake -- also fall under this category.

Last on the action-plan list, there's "positioning IT to enable green business practices." This point relates to in-house technology investments that result in a green (and potentially lean) payoff. Examples might include investing in a teleconference solution to reduce environmentally unfriendly air travel or "looking at alternative energy technologies and suppliers," as Fujitsu recently did with the investment in a hydrogen fuel cell.

All told, I commend Forrester on this report, and I've just scratched the surface here of the document. Over the past several months, we've all read about the various technologies, practices, and projects out there that companies are using in the hopes of becoming green organizations. The report is an important reminder that, tempting as it may be to start throwing resources around to reap rewards of sustainability, planning, assessing, monitoring and procedural changes are critical -- and IT has a central role to play in it all.