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Having a partnership structure gives retailer John Lewis a head start on green matters because its democratic ethos means the debate is company-wide. Even more pertinent, the financial consequence of any green action affects everyone’s pay packet.

Long before the rest of the world became eco-aware, all light switches at John Lewis were accompanied by the sign: 'Switch off – it’s eating my bonus'. With such green behaviour firmly entrenched it was a natural step to join the Environmental IT Leadership Team (EILT) set up by Global Action Plan earlier this year.

"We’d always led on green IT because of our strong corporate social responsibility focus. The difficult thing is to find the next thing to lead on," confirms Gary Hird, technical infrastructure manager at John Lewis, and member of the EILT board. Being part of EILT is a valuable source of debate and provides a direction in working out what is really going to help the planet, Hird explains.

Hird is responsible for making sure that the retailer has the right strategy for its IT infrastructure and that this is fully aligned with business strategy. Since 2006, Hird has taken responsibility for progressing Green IT initiatives for John Lewis and Waitrose.

Hird identifies two areas where the IT department can make a difference. The first is the two percent of emissions over which the IT department has direct control, namely the infrastructure. Second, his department can provide solutions to reduce emissions for the rest of the business, such as providing software tools to make the transport fleet more efficient.

The first piece is the easier of the two. At the beginning of the year, John Lewis consolidated and virtualised its servers. "It was one of the most straightforward projects I’ve ever done," he confirms, chiefly because it was an internal affair for the IT department.

"Our datacentre was under a lot of strain. We have two centres in Bracknell and Victoria and the proliferation of servers meant that power and cooling, floor space and even load bearing (the Victoria centre is on the fourth floor) were becoming critical. Projected demand showed no let-up and there was no decommissioning of old servers either," explains Hird.

An audit of server usage revealed a low 8% utilisation. "Our mainframe has nearly 100% utilisation," points outs Hird. "Clearly, the Intel servers could do better."

Implementation of VMware now means the retailer can realistically aim for 70% usage. After an initial pilot of 20 virtual servers, JLP has nearly 150 virtual servers. In 2008, more than half of JLP's computing power will be virtualised. The project has saved more than £100,000 in new server purchases, 120 units of rack space, 1.5 tonnes in weight of equipment, numerous network and SAN connections and 250 tonnes of CO2 annually.

The issue of low decommissioning activity has also been tackled.

"It’s an issue generally for the IT industry that it doesn’t spend much time thinking about what happens to kit at the end of its life," says Hird. John Lewis’ IT department has addressed this by creating the ‘graveyard’ document that tracks every piece of equipment in its lifecycle.

Hird answers our questions on environmental sustainability.

On 3 December, practical environmental charity Global Action Plan will launch in-depth research at an event at the House of Commons, with the backing of Peter Ainsworth MP, shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs and maverick MP Alan Simpson. The research, called 'An Inefficient Truth’, will reveal environmental awareness amongst the UK IT community and what steps are being taken to reduce IT's impact on the environment. The findings have been compiled after a Green IT Survey, which was conducted by Computerworld UK, and backed by Logicalis.

Have you calculated the carbon footprint of your IT activities?

Not for the IT department specifically. But we do know the carbon footprint of the entire partnership.

Does your department pay for the energy consumed by your organisation’s IT equipment?

Yes. And, because of this arrangement we know that the energy cost of the datacentre is £329,000 a year.

Does IT play a role in defining green strategy in the organisation?

I can’t praise our corporate social responsibility (CSR) team highly enough. Communication between our departments is a two-way street. They’re open to our ideas and likewise have given me a lot of support in recommending metrics to make the virtualisation project work.

What one environmental policy have you implemented that you feel has been particularly significant?

Virtualisation was key. But IT has a big part to play beyond internal projects in the bigger picture of how John Lewis can improve its environmental leadership.

Do you have an identified person within IT who is now responsible for green IT?

That’s me. And because green matters are higher on the agenda, we’ve just created a new role for an environmental manager for IT. In 2008, we’re going to do more about air conditioning and cooling.