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Greenpeace UK’s battle against climate change has started in its own datacentre. The environmental campaign is not only raising the issue of global warming on the streets and in the corridors of power, it is also reducing its own “carbon footprint” by partially powering the datacentre – and the rest of its London headquarters - with energy generated from solar panels and newly installed wind turbines.

It is an example of the difference a “green” approach to IT can make. As energy costs spiral and businesses face growing corporate social responsibility obligations and the possibility of new legislation, environmental considerations are beginning to rise up the IT agenda.

So far, few IT directors are implementing specific green strategies, but many are starting to explore how they can control the overall environmental impact of technology, with energy efficiency the main concern.

The UK’s big three environmental campaigns – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the conservation charity WWF – are all looking carefully at the environmental impact of their IT policies, and their experience offers lessons for IT departments across the private and public sectors too.

David Southern, head of IT and facilities at WWF UK, says adopting a greener approach does not have to be an all or nothing proposition – it can be undertaken in stages. “There’s a level that can be achieved fairly simply but can still make a real difference, and then there’s another level that people may aspire to, but which is more difficult to get to,” he says.

At the relatively simple level, WWF has replaced its cathode ray tube monitors with thin film transistor screens, which use approximately one third of the energy and produce less heat.The charity has also configured its desktop PCs to go into auto hibernation mode after 10 to 15 minutes if they have not been used, and encourages staff to switch off their monitors when they go out to save on electricity.

At FoE, PCs and printers are shut down every night. Although some organisations roll out upgrades and undertake back-ups overnight, the campaign group prefers to control the timing of upgrades using the Microsoft Windows Update Service. This means upgrades normally take place when machines are switched on in the morning.

The back-up process involves staff saving their work to network drives rather than locally on their PCs, with file synchronisation taking place automatically when their desktops are shut down. Emma Webster, FoE’s IT support team leader, acknowledges that this means it takes “a few minutes longer” for staff to start up and turn off their machines, but she says: “People are willing to accept that as they understand the benefits.”

FoE also enforces paper saving policies on printing. Double-sided printing is the default except for official documents and staff are encouraged to reuse scrap paper to prevent waste. New staff are made aware of these policies at hour-long IT induction sessions when they join.

Greenpeace

Based in London – 100 staff
100 desktops and laptops – the organisation would not name the operating system used
20 servers running a mix of operating systems, due to be consolidated to 10 in a virtualisation project.

FoE

Based in London – 120 staff across 10 sites, with a similar number of volunteers
210 PCs and about 30 laptops, running Windows XP
25 servers, now being consolidated to about half that number. The servers currently run a mix of Windows, Unix and Linux, but the organisation plans to standardise on Windows.

WWF

Based in Surrey – 300 staff across 6 sites
About 300 HP PCs running Windows
15 HP servers running a mix of Windows, Unix and Linux. Also runs VMWare for virtualisation.

Webster explains the rationale: “The challenge comes when you’re trying to change anything and without embedding thought processes into the organisation, that’s difficult to do.

But if you can get people when they first come in, practices don’t tend to be questioned. It’s assumed that that’s just the way you do things and, over time, it becomes more culturally ingrained.”

Embedding green considerations into the IT strategy also requires buy-in at the highest level. Greenpeace IS manager Jeremy Anson explains: “We have an ongoing programme looking at our environmental footprint. This covers everything from waste to air miles and power consumption and is about achieving year-on-year improvements.


Targets are set for the entire organisation and the IT department contributes to those.”This concept of targets is key, he believes. “It’s about balancing things. So, for example, if we need to buy a power-hungry machine for power users, we can make compensating changes and reduce energy consumption elsewhere. It’s important to be pragmatic and provide people with the tools they need but to set it within a green context, and that’s where targets help.”

Two years ago, Greenpeace decided to cut its air travel, reducing the mileage by 40%. To support this, the IT department introduced online meeting tools to supplement its video conferencing service. “While you can’t attribute this change to the technology, it is helpful for people to have an alternative when they know that air miles are being counted and as a result are being much more careful about where they use them,” Anson says.

Greenpeace’s IT department is trying to reduce its overall power consumption, as well as adopting renewable power sources for its datacentre. It is piloting x86-based server virtualisation software, which it expects to roll out over the next couple of months. The aim is to consolidate its 20 servers down to about 10 – a move being echoed at FoE.

At WWF, David Southern says thin client technology such as Citrix requires “less process-hungry” desktop equipment and can extend the machines’ lifespan, reducing the need for replacements.

But he warns that while “you can potentially double the lifetime of your PCs” by introducing such software, it can require significant infrastructure changes. “You need a very robust LAN and WAN and you’ve got to look at the resilience and disaster recovery implications of having all of your key documents and applications stored in a server environment. So this is not low-hanging fruit. It takes planning,” he says.

The organisation already uses Citrix to deliver applications to its six regional sites and plans to roll the technology out to its Surrey headquarters over the next couple of years.

At Greenpeace, Anson uses the organisation’s own Guide to Greener Electronics, when purchasing kit. This ranks the top 14 PC and mobile manufacturers according to their policies on toxic chemicals and recycling.

Anson aims to manage the equipment lifecycle by matching machines with the requirements of each individual staff member. “We have a lot of people that do fairly basic word processing and don’t need a powerful computer, whereas those in accounts, for example, do. So we give the most powerful machines to those that need them. The rest of the PCs move through the organisation and only when they’re of no value to anyone do they get recycled,” Anson explains.

Manufacturers are now obliged to handle equipment recycling themselves under the terms of the European Commission’s WEEE Directive but Greenpeace pays a third-party recycling organisation to provide an audit trail outlining what happens to its equipment.

But FoE’s Webster warns against replacing older systems with “greener” technologies for the sake of it. “If you can get another couple of years out of it, there’s no point in replacing things, as creating anything – and that includes recycling – requires energy. You’re potentially doing more damage to the environment by binning it than letting it come to the end of its lifespan,” she says. “It’s far more wasteful and will increase your carbon footprint. Really the motto is all about reusing what you can.”