Why green IT is good for business

As these companies have discovered, when IT projects focus on operational efficiency, sustainability benefits usually follow.

When Kevin Humphries talks about green IT at FedEx, you won't hear much about reducing the company's carbon footprint. FedEx embraced the new math of green IT when it engineered every inch of its new, LEED-certified 46,000-sq.-ft. data center for maximum operational efficiency. "We found the most optimal mathematical model for capacities and efficiencies," says the senior vice president of IT at FedEx Corporate Services. The result is what he calls "a perfect blend" of green energy usage, fiscal savings and rational utilization of equipment and resources.

Elements of the design included flywheel backup power generators, variable-speed fans that help keep the facility's Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating low, and air-side economizers that generate 5,000 hours per year of free cooling for the Colorado Springs building. FedEx also raised the operating temperature in the data center by 5 degrees to cut the cooling bill. Meanwhile, specific rack cooling technologies, alternative energy sources and other systems were not included because FedEx felt they were risky, prone to failure or required undue maintenance. "We had to find the perfect blend of simplicity and advanced technology," Humphries says.

Because the hype and excitement over green IT has diminished over the past few years, and the specter of carbon taxes has faded, organizations have begun to put sustainable IT initiatives on the back burner, or even dismiss them entirely. But successful green IT projects usually go hand in hand with operational efficiency initiatives, where benefits drop down to the bottom line while meeting corporate sustainability goals. "Did we make any trade-offs with efficiency versus cost? There were very few," Humphries says.

The good news is that there are still plenty of relatively easy ways to make your facilities more eco-friendly. "Your average data center remains relatively inefficient," says Simon Mingay, an analyst at Gartner. And that means green IT affords lots of opportunities for gaining favor with the CFO as well as the corporate sustainability advocate. There's even a road map to follow: The best practices for energy efficiency are now well established and readily available from resources such as The Green Grid (see box below), and standards for water usage, carbon usage, renewable energy and e-waste are evolving rapidly.

Green IT

Road Maps to Best Practices

The following guides to green IT metrics are available at TheGreenGrid.org:

• " Power Usage Effectiveness: A Comprehensive Examination of the Metric"

• " Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE): A Green Grid Data Center Sustainability Metric"

• " Carbon Usage Effectiveness (CUE): A Green Grid Data Center Sustainability Metric"

• " Electronics Disposal Efficiency (EDE): An IT Recycling Metric for Enterprises and Data Centers"

Ian Bitterlin, chairman of The Green Grid's EMEA Technical Work Group and CTO at Emerson Network Power Systems, says there are three steps to maximizing efficiency: Cut consumption, make IT processes more efficient and think about alternative energy -- in that order. "If you put them in the wrong order, you'll just waste renewable energy," he says.

Virtualization End Game

When it comes to reducing consumption and improving operational efficiency, consolidation through server virtualization still offers the biggest bang for the buck. While many IT organizations are working to virtualize more of their legacy server infrastructures -- FedEx is now 80% virtualized -- Raytheon has already reached the finish line. "All legacy servers have been transitioned, [and] as a result, 2013 will be the last year that we capture and report on the energy and cost savings," says Brian Moore, IT sustainability program lead. The emphasis now turns to desktop virtualization using energy-sipping thin clients, e-waste reduction, and the use of analytics and data center instrumentation to monitor, manage and reduce energy use.

At Northrop Grumman, server virtualization was part of a data center consolidation effort, completed in August, that eliminated 4,000 physical servers while consolidating 19 data centers and 81 smaller server rooms into three facilities. But like its desktop power management program, which cut energy use for desktops by more than 21%, the server virtualization was driven primarily by a desire to improve operational efficiencies and the bottom line. Helping the company's GreenNG environmental sustainability program achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25% -- a goal attained just one year into the three-year initiative -- was a bonus. "Power consumption reductions were one of the benefits, but it was just part of our overall IT transformation strategy," says Brad Furukawa, vice president and CTO for Northrop Grumman's shared services division.

While server virtualization is well established, many organizations are still just getting started with desktop virtualization. But First National of Nebraska is well into a project to replace between 70% and 80% of its desktops with virtual desktops accessed through thin clients. The move will cut the hassle and headaches associated with disposal of desktop e-waste, which has been piling up in warehouses. "It was driving us crazy," says James Cole, senior vice president and CIO at the financial services firm.

First National of Nebraska has even extended the concept of virtualization to its chillers. It uses an off-premises utility that provides chilled water to multiple tenants in the local business district. Normally, each business would have its own closed-loop system, each with its own excess capacity. Virtual chillers let each business share capacity, improving energy efficiency and cutting costs, says Cole.

Turning Up the Heat

A more controversial green computing initiative involves raising the maximum air intake temperature on equipment racks in data centers to as high as 80.6 degrees to reduce the energy demands of cooling systems, as Technical Committee 9.9 of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommended in 2011. But today, just 7% of all data centers run at 75 degrees or higher, according to a recent Uptime Institute survey. The idea of raising the temperature may seem anathema to many data center managers, but some organizations are slowly inching up their thermostats.

At Earth Rangers, a nonprofit focused on environmental education, IT systems director Rob DiStefano raised temperatures in a small data center from the high 60s in 2010 to 77 degrees, but stopped there when network storage temperature alarms went off. "Storage units are the biggest heat monster in the room," he says. He could have reconfigured the alarms from the factory defaults, but the idea made him uncomfortable. "We didn't want to risk it," DiStefano says. And with intake air temperatures at 77 degrees, air temperatures on the back of the racks were getting uncomfortably warm, says Andy Schonberger, director of the Earth Rangers center.

For his part, Humphries raised the temperature in the FedEx Colorado Springs data center by 5 degrees. He declined to say where the temperature is now set, but he says if he set the temperature at 76 degrees on the intake side of the racks, the temperature in the hot aisle would top 100 degrees. "Sending in someone to replace servers in 100-degree heat is not what we want," he says. Humphries says the law of diminishing returns kicks in as you approach the upper range of the ASHRAE limit: Fans run longer and equipment works harder, and adding heat containment would have gone against FedEx's commitment to simplicity in the data center. But raising the temperature 5 degrees in Colorado Springs yielded cost savings that are significant enough for the organization to begin phasing in a similar change at another major data center in Tennessee.

Savings also added up at Raytheon, which raised temperatures in the network distribution rooms in its Tucson, Ariz., facility from 65 to 75 degrees without running into problems. That step alone saved 112,000 kilowatt-hours per month -- enough energy to power 100 homes, according to Moore. Raytheon has expanded the initiative to other facilities, but savings vary depending on location, total power use and other variables.

Roger Schmidt, an IBM fellow and chief engineer on data center efficiency, recommends that Web 2.0 and lower-tier data centers turn the needle closer to the 80.6-degree mark, but he says that even Tier 1 data centers in risk-averse industries such as banking can safely ease the mercury up to 75 degrees.

Another underappreciated strategy is to set up instrumentation in the data center that lets administrators monitor and manage both temperature and power use. Most IT organizations still don't do this, according to Gartner. Schonberger advises building a business case for this by tracking the half-dozen pieces of equipment that are your company's biggest energy consumers. "It doesn't save you any money, but it allows you to prioritize," he says.

Saving Green With Alternative Energy

Only after an organization has analyzed and instrumented its data center, eliminated redundancy and re-engineered to squeeze the maximum efficiency out of its IT infrastructure should alternative power come into play. First National of Nebraska became one of the first organizations to power a data center entirely on fuel cells when it built a new data center more than a decade ago. But when it was time to order new fuel cells this year, it was able to cut the power requirements from 600 to 400 kilowatts because management of its data center infrastructure had improved.

The operating cost, at 12 cents per kwh, is almost double the 6.2 cents First National's utility would charge. But First National had designed the building to use the waste heat from fuel cells to warm its interior and melt snow on some outdoor surfaces in the winter. Fuel cells also provide a very stable power supply and meet management's goals of using renewable energy, Cole says. But, he says, "if we were building the data center today, it would be a more difficult business decision."

FedEx uses solar and fuel cells in other facilities. But after considering solar, wind and fuel cells during the design phase for the Colorado Springs data center several years ago, it decided to pass. Of those technologies, fuel cells looked the most promising. The cost of power from fuel cells couldn't match utility rates, but the business was more concerned about the availability of commercial utility power than the economics, says IT director Brad Hilliard. What killed the idea was the location of service, which at that time was concentrated on the East and West coasts. Today, however, the technology and associated support infrastructure is more mature. Were he reconsidering that decision now, Hilliard says, "We would spend more energy on that because that local utility risk is so important to manage."

Fuel cells can be very efficient for data centers because the waste heat they generate can be used to cool the facility when fed into special absorption chillers. But from a purely economic standpoint, you still need fiscal incentives, such as tax breaks, to make them a viable business proposition, says Gartner's Mingay.

Beyond the Data Center

KPMG's IT team has taken the lead in driving green IT initiatives that go well beyond the data center. For example, IT pitched a 500 kW solar array to the real estate group for its Montvale, N.J., campus after sustainable IT leader Darren McGann heard a colleague at Microsoft discussing a solar project it had completed. The IT group also raised average operating temperatures to 79 degrees in its data centers after seeing a demonstration where Microsoft moved part of a data center into an outdoor tent to demonstrate the robustness of IT equipment. McGann claims that KPMG's data center was the first to generate power using gas micro turbine generators, and it reuses the waste heat in combination with absorption chillers to help cool the data center.

Gas-powered microturbines are more economical than fuel cells, but you still can't make the business case on energy savings alone, says Mingay. In most locations, you still need tax breaks, capital allowances or the policy tool known as "feed-in tariffs" to make them economically viable, although it can be more attractive in locations where natural gas is inexpensive.

IT is uniquely positioned to help make the business case for, and drive, other green initiatives that go beyond the data center, PCs and office automation equipment. At KPMG, for example, it was IT business process analysis and automation expertise that helped propel an initiative to create a paperless audit system.

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