The clamour for green IT raised by the spiralling cost of energy, corporate social responsibility mandates and regulations around power consumption and electronic waste disposal is beginning to have an impact on IT infrastructures in ways that aren’t just confined to the datacentre.

Research by analysts Datamonitor found that over 75 per cent of CIO respondents considered eco-friendly computing an important element in their IT strategy, while 15 per cent rated it as their top IT priority.

“While green IT practices such as energy-efficient hardware, hosted infrastructure and datacentre virtualisation have all been around for a while now, it is only recently that companies have begun incorporating green IT in their core business strategies,” says Vamshi Mokshagundam, technology analyst at Datamonitor.

So it is that, with one eye on environmental responsibilities and the other on budgets, CIOs are beginning to explore the possibilities of embracing broader eco-friendly IT strategies.

Democratically run by members who pay as little as £1 to join, the 145-year-old Co-operative Group has long made ethical responsibility a core part of its brand value. Even before last month’s agreement to buy Somerfield, its business responsibilities grew in scale in July 2007 when it merged with the UK’s second-largest such concern, United Co-operatives. The new society is the world’s largest consumer co-operative with 2.5 million active trading members and more than 80,000 employees, and covers food, financial services (including online bank Smile), travel, pharmacy, funerals and legal services.

In spite of the significant distraction created by the combination, the merged group has already switched to renewable sources to supply the electricity to its mainland food stores as part of a target to reduce energy use by 25 per cent at all its premises by 2012.

As part of that target, the Co-op has launched a night-time, energy-saving programme for the electronic point-of-sale (Epos) operations of its 2200 UK food stores. This is itself part of an £8.3m investment in a single IBM Epos control system for its expanded food store network.

The InControl Epos platform was developed by The Co-operative Group’s own IT team and is currently installed in around 1650 of the group’s food stores; it will be rolled out to 550 former United food stores through the course of this year. The system consists of touch-screen tills with customer-facing advertising screens, an integrated Chip and PIN system; a new stock and order replenishment system; and wireless networks within stores for printing labels and price checking. The group has been working to a schedule of upgrading around 20 food stores a week since March.

Mark Hale, food retail IS director at Co-op, says the Epos project “marks a key step in the process of integration of the societies and the ‘one business in one year’ [integration] goal that we have set ourselves”.

The investment is expected to result in several significant benefits to the organisation’s food retail business, including reduced operating costs and overheads, and the creation of a single communication process for all food store teams. But it’s the notion of using the network to control distributed clients that is adding a tangible green business benefit.

The introduction of the ‘Wake-up on LAN’ programme will enable tills, receipt printers, customer and operator screens, Chip and PIN authorisation devices and barcode scanners to be switched off automatically when stores close and power up again the following morning.

Powering ahead

As with many recent green projects, this is a scenario that would not even have been considered until quite recently. “The re-engineering of the Epos system so it can be shut down at night demonstrates how power has now become vital to the criteria of running a business, where a couple of years ago it wouldn’t have even been on the radar,” Hale says.

Hale says the introduction of the programme will also prolong the life of the hardware, thereby reducing the environmental impact and cost base further by requiring less frequent equipment renewal.

“As well as enabling an ethical approach, there’s also the financial implication,” he adds. “For instance, evaluating the recent Epos developments in-store by a factor of 2200 becomes a big number. And we believe we can get longevity out of equipment because we’re roughly taking a third out of its lifetime use.”

The Co-op says it would save 1.68 million kilowatt hours of energy per annum by using the system, which has been developed by the group’s in-house IT team in collaboration with IBM to re-engineer the InControl store end-of-day batch process system. Savings on its energy bills are expected to be around £120,000 a year along with a reduction of 722 tonnes of CO2. Implementation is expected to be complete this summer.

Hale observes that energy efficiency has to be part of the broader IT agenda too. The Co-op is using customer-facing screens at the till point “to get across brand messages about reusable energy and our own ethical policies. It’s about using the technology available”.

Dale Vile, managing director of analyst Freeform Dynamics, says: “It’s only right that, in industries like retail and manufacturing where distributed IT assets don’t make up the main bulk of the energy bill that IT organisations should look at assets like Epos systems, and client devices used in places like warehouses, from an energy perspective.”

Vile says IT’s role is as much about enabling greener business operations as it is operating more efficiently.

“There are three areas where the IT organisation can get involved. The first is dealing with energy consumption centrally, in the datacentre for instance, which is relatively easy to do as IT has control. The second is the distributed IT assets – as with the Co-op Epos project – but this is harder to do as it can rely as much on changing user behaviour, like switching things off, as it does getting full IT control. And the third is proving that everything from more efficient fleet management and supply chain to home-working IT resources can help the business optimise operations more -efficiently,” he says.

Hale adds that the green initiatives already deployed in the Co-op’s IT infrastructure were spurring the organisation on to make evaluating power consumption and energy efficiency a mandatory part of the IT procurement process. “This has been formalised as part of the selection process, as a checkpoint to look for the more power-conscious devices,” he says.

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