Green IT is about retooling business processes and the ICT environment to reduce energy consumption and tthe organisation's carbon footprint. Happily, this coincides with increasing pressure to improve operational efficiencies and reduce processing costs. -Thus, an improvement at the bottom line can also enhance a company’s green credentials – a development that is becoming both a legislative requirement and a competitive differentiator.

No longer aimed at just heavy industry, there is increasing pressure on corporates across all market sectors, and within all areas of activity, to reduce their greenhouse gases. And when it comes to technology, this is being translated into a growing list of legislative, media and industry initiatives.

At the government level, there is a growing list of mandates that include the EC’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive and the Energy Star programme from the US Environmental Protection Agency, strongly supported by IT suppliers such as Intel. This last programme was instrumental in introducing a ‘sleep mode’ to PCs and other electronics products.

Green standards at a national level include Sweden’s TCO certification programme, aimed at reducing heat levels in power usage, and restricting the use of hazardous materials. Another initiative is the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which targets manufacturing in an effort to limit the use of products such as lead. At the same time, EPEAT mandates that IT production plants build electronics products so they run more efficiently, require less maintenance, have a longer service life for components, and offer easier recycling at the disposal stage. These initiatives share similarities and overlap, yet they also have different points of focus and can be adopted either separately, or as a total package.

Green schemes

The IT industry itself has been looking to improve its green credentials and has introduced a series of green programmes. One of these is the Green Grid, a set of standards devised by a consortium of manufacturers, including Intel, HP, AMD, IBM and Sun, to increase hardware efficiency and reduce energy consumption. The availability of this type of checklist not only makes it easier for CIOs to measure the efficiency of their IT environment but also to assess the green credentials of proposed upgrades or system replacements.

Last year, IBM launched Project Big Green, a programme aimed at promoting energy efficiency in the datacentre. Datacentres are huge power consumers, both in their processing volumes and cooling requirements, and the trend is getting worse. Where in the past a company’s power usage bill for IT might have contributed up to 10 per cent of overall operational costs, these costs are set to expand to at least 30 per cent, given the rising cost of energy. This fact alone makes initiatives such as the Green Grid vital.

Server consolidation helps reduce processing requirements and therefore power consumption. One of the most significant IT developments of recent times is virtualisation, which aims to provide similar capabilities as the traditional datacentre, with a fraction of its power consumption – not to mention reduced hardware and maintenance costs.

The drive for cost efficiencies at the desktop can bring energy savings of up to 20 per cent. This is being achieved by removing redundant workstations and applying green innovations such as software that shuts down unattended PCs – a non-trivial consideration since it reduces the annual electricity bill by £75 for each PC left running overnight.

Conversely, other applications can be used to boot up PCs at night so that routine tasks, such as software upgrades, take advantage of off-peak electricity rates. Here, suppliers such as Intel and Google are leading the way, having joined forces in 2007 to launch the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, aimed at reducing PC power consumption.

An increasingly popular corporate policy is to substitute global travel with video conferencing. Not only does this save on travel time for highly paid executives and the cost of travel itself, it also reduces carbon waste.

Telecommuting is also becoming popular, encouraged by jammed motorways and the advent of road congestion charges. More and more businesses are becoming virtual organisations with departments springing up in their employees’ home offices, and IT support centres managed remotely. This both reduces commuting emissions and allows for smaller offices with reduced heat and lighting overheads. There are, of course, costs associated with this type of solution, such as the need for more robust and complex ICT networking, which in turn brings us back to the issue of power consumption.

One way around this is to find alternative electricity supplies. A truly eco-friendly company might want to consider developing its own power source, such as solar, geo-thermal or wind (you can see the wind turbine at Reading’s Green Park from the M4 motorway) and then selling the excess back to the National Grid.

The brave new world of e-commerce was supposed to lead to a paperless and greener office. While going paperless may still be unrealistic, consumption can be reduced through centralised printing (which controls volume), more efficient document management, double-sided output and, of course, recycling. Although most businesses are now in the habit of recycling paper, knowing what to do with old PCs is not so clear.

And while directives such as WEEE cover the disposal of electrical equipment, reuse remains an intriguing possibility. Some organisations have developed schemes for recycling computers, first removing sensitive data from the hard drive and then donating them to countries where the availability of any PC is a rarity.

Another approach is California’s Electronic Waste Recycling Act, a state-wide programme for recycling obsolete computer and electronic equipment, the expenses of which are covered by a fee imposed on each unit at the time of sale.

How do you rate?

Greenness has become a key competitive differentiator. Companies want to be seen by customers and prospects as being good community citizens and so are including their green credentials in corporate social responsibility policies and demanding eco credentials from their IT suppliers. But, with a rising tide of green IT solutions and services now hitting the market, how should a CIO go about discerning between the good, the bad and the average when it comes to green IT credentials?

To begin with, the choice requires an ability to compare specifications against the latest legislative requirements and best-practice industry standards. This, however, only goes so far. Deciding how an individual supplier stacks up against peers usually requires access to independent industry knowledge and a large, statistically suitable, database that is typically available from IT benchmarking specialists.

Not only does this data help companies make informed decisions about their IT investments, it enables them to measure their own operation to see how green they are compared with the competition. This is difficult to do internally since it’s a bit like trying to recognise one’s own blind spots.

Green IT benchmarking can help identify an organisation’s standing in the real world and what the organisation needs to do to improve its green credentials. While this type of study does require investment, the returns can be substantial in terms of operational improvements, a reduction in carbon footprint, and as an independent statement of IT efficiency.