Time to green-light sustainable IT

With their piecemeal approaches, most organisations are merely dabbling with green technology. True sustainability is much more than hammering the data centre over power, says Martin Atherton.

The current penchant for invoking green IT whenever data centre power consumption is mentioned may suit the goals of IT vendors with new power efficient kit to sell; but it does little to help address the bigger picture.

In fact, it only serves to perpetuate the misguided notion that IT is to be treated at arm’s length as an isolated part of the business.

The word ’holistic’ gets overused but is valid here. It sums up perfectly the approach that an organisation needs to take to understand its requirements and adopt an IT strategy to help achieve them. Diving straight into the data centre without first taking stock simply doesn’t make sense.

Power efficiency is simply a subset of a much more important target: the blending of sustainability into the DNA of a business.

The challenge is where to start. The danger is that market hype is already tempting organisations into optimising the wrong places by taking a fragmented view, rather than considering a net outcome.

To make a start on an environmental initiative that has any chance of succeeding, an organisation needs to identify the important areas. It can then break these areas down into projects that guide the business towards a common, established goal.

So what are these important areas? Research has highlighted seven key topics, as shown in the graphic below, that organisations need to address so as to plan and take appropriate action.

  1. Drivers Internal drivers might be a desire to make or save money or to look green. External ones include regulatory obligations. Ultimately this is about understanding the implications of what an organisation desires and what obligations it needs to meet.
  2. Leadership This means commitment from the top of an organisation, which is the best way to ensure that environmental commitment cascades down through individual leaders to the staff.
  3. People Research shows that individuals are usually only too willing to support an organisation’s environmental efforts. Often they are more advanced in their thinking and actions outside work. Management may find it is pushing against an open door when it comes to implementing sustainability initiatives.
  4. Processes It is much more difficult to gain support for brand-new environmental processes. Organisations should seek to adapt and extend existing processes to make them greener. For sustainability to be sustainable, the emphasis needs to be evolution, not revolution.
  5. Technology People, processes and technology are interwoven because they need to work together for the best environmental outcomes. Travel substitution through teleconferencing or home working, for example, cannot happen without tech’s close involvement. Context is key. For example, reducing the organisation’s travel carbon footprint and costs by investing in high-definition telepresence capabilities reduces the effect on the physical world but increases the need for equipment and bandwidth in the data centre. If the organisation then seeks to optimise power consumption in the data centre, it does so knowing it is being addressed in the correct, business-led context. The net effect of action needs to support the business as well as reduce the impact on the environment.
  6. Equipment PCs, servers, printers, cooling systems – all come with an embodied carbon footprint. They affect the environment in their manufacture and in use and, unless disposed of sensibly, can create further end-of-life issues. Reuse and repurposing need to be considered instead of replacement. This approach can drive other initiatives, such as establishing better controls over data storage and driving up server utilisation levels so that equipment is exploited to the fullest possible extent.

  7. Resources Electricity, paper, ink and toner cartridges – they are sourced, exploited and disposed of so similar questions need to be asked.

Ultimately, businesses need to take a long-term view of sustainability. Rather than seeking out short-term stunts that may have PR value but lack substance and longevity, organisations need to understand areas that contribute to the overall picture, so that they can start on a firm footing.

As Freeform Dynamics has established, business leaders will find that sustainable and meaningful strategies will be welcomed by their employees. Longer term benefits to the business and the environment could be achieved by treating each of the areas outlined as a foundation.

Furthermore, IT must be treated as a key part of the equation, not just a power-hungry monster to be vanquished. Then, not only could an environmentally sound strategy be sustained but the sought-after alignment between business and IT may also gradually fall into place.

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