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Green IT: The Key to Energy Efficiency

InformIT Senior Editor Dustin Sullivan sat down (virtually) with IBM Senior Technical Staff Member and The Greening of IT author John Lamb along with IBM Distinguished Engineer Chris Molloy and IBM Global Technology Services Chief Marketing Officer Jody Cefola to discuss energy management in information technology as well as John's new book.
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Editor's Note: For more information on Green IT from John Lamb, see also:

InformIT: Let's get right to it: why is green IT important?

John Lamb: Green IT is perhaps the best way for any organization to get started with energy efficiency. Servers, laptops, and other IT equipment are typically refreshed every three or four years as part of an organization's strategy to keep up to date with technology. This refresh policy provides a great opportunity for a company to buy new energy efficient equipment and implement server and data storage virtualization. Virtualization provides significant IT flexibility, reduces data center space requirements, and can reduce system management costs. The savings in energy costs becomes significant (up to 50%) on top of an already robust business case for virtualization — without even considering reduction in electricity costs.
Chris Molloy: Studies show IT consumed 2% of the energy generated in the US in 2007, and is expected to double by 2012. John's book shows how IT organizations can reduce, if not reverse, that trend, saving millions of dollars and reducing the strain on world energy consumption.
Jody Cefola: We live in an information age with more and more use of Information Technology, which is driving up the use of servers and storage to support the applications we use every day. This growth has a side effect that it requires more energy to use. The result is that energy use in data centers has doubled in the past five years and will continue to double in the next 3-4 years. More effective and efficient use of energy by IT will save energy use and costs, making green IT good for business and good for the planet.

IT: Is this problem limited to the United States?

JL: Absolutely not. I'm responding to this question on April 2, 2009, from Johannesburg, South Africa. In addition to news on the Q20, the morning paper in Johannesburg has articles on the electricity costs for South Africa using alternative technology for generation such as wind, hydro, landfill-gas, and solar being mandated by the government. Also, the company I'm working with in Johannesburg has been told by the local power company that they cannot add any more servers to their data center since the power currently being supplied is at a maximum. Green IT is important worldwide from several fronts, including energy cost, environmental aspects, and power company limits on power available to data centers.
CM: This problem is not limited to the U.S., which is why we've added case studies from France, Turkey, and India in addition to the US information.
JC: Energy efficiency is a global issue — both now and in the future. Many clients in growth markets such as China and India are looking at how to grow their use of IT and do so in an energy efficient manner — often with government support to save energy. With energy costs growing 10-25% per year and energy supplies being constrained in island locations such as New York, London, and Japan, it is a global problem.

IT: John, what made you decide to write this book?

JL: Here's a short history on my motivation: I was the working as the enterprise architect on a customer project, and one of my customer contacts had seen a news article on IBM working with Bryant University on a modular design for a green data center. The customer asked me how IBM could help them with green data centers. Based on working with that customer on getting started on their green data center, I submitted a conference abstract for a paper on green IT, and that led to the book proposal.

IT: You reference a five-step continuous improvement process in your book. Can you tell us about that?

JL: There is nothing magic about just having five steps in your process. However, the five steps of diagnose, measure/manage, cool, virtualize, and build are basic steps for all data centers. Additional steps such as communications/appointing an energy czar, analysis of application efficiency, and making use of rebates and incentives could further help improve the business case for going green.
CM: Improving energy management is an ongoing endeavor. The five-step process helps provide an ongoing pattern for end to end energy management. It starts with taking initial measurements to understand your particular situation, making continuous changes to both facilities and IT environments, and then determining the affect of those changes with an ongoing energy management monitoring and measurement system.
JC: Improving energy efficiency requires focusing on a number of areas: the IT equipment, the data center facility, and the on-going energy management. The five-step process was a way to show a set of actions across all these areas to focus on continual improvement. Over time, as the focus on Green IT expands outside of the data center, it becomes a good way to approach an area with many pieces. The first step is to "get the facts" and diagnose where your energy is being used. For an existing environment you can then virtualize the IT equipment, purchase new energy efficient products to cool, and measure and manage the energy usage. When you have the chance to build something new, you can do additional actions to design with energy efficiency in mind.

IT: What were your challenges in writing a book on such a broad topic?

JL: Not only is the topic broad, but during the writing of this book, every day I would come across new information that I'd think should be in the book. Also, many energy standards and metrics are still in the development stage. Of course with all the research going into energy efficiency, we should expect continuous improvement not only in technology but in the government and industry standards and metrics used in determining the goals for green data centers and green IT in general.
CM: The largest challenge was summarizing all that is going on in this space. Energy management is being incorporated in everything from the hardware component level (computer chip, memory, and power supply design) to the server level (power capping) to the data center level (interaction of the facilities and IT management systems). That is why the case studies are so important, as they show the affects of injecting multiple technologies into the environment simultaneously.
JC: The biggest challenge is that the market is moving so fast. In the first 6 months of working on the book, the market moved from a focus of educating clients on what green IT was about, but then shifted to talking about how to get started. Before long clients wanted to implement and wanted case studies with benefits to show how they could achieve similar benefits. The number of product and service capabilities available in the market has growth, making it more challenging to talk about what is available and how to achieve the cost and energy savings. Green IT started in the data center and now includes supply chains, water management, and corporate sustainability.

IT: How much of this is "green washing," or just marketing hype that companies are being environmentally friendly?

JL: For data centers the cost saving incentives are so great that there would usually be little need for an organization to exaggerate how environmentally friendly they are.
CM: While there is some of that going on in the industry, companies as motivated by the economic benefits they have seen. A typical US data center with 25,000 square feet uses approximately $2.6 million in energy costs per year. Improvements in energy management can save up to 50% of those costs, with over a million dollar savings a motivator to drive sufficient interest.
JC: As green took off, there was some green washing, but the market was brutal on any claims made by vendors which didn't generate true energy savings or demonstrate quantifiable results.

IT: Do I have to build a new data center to take advantage of these savings, or can they be incorporated into my existing data centers?

JL: Energy saving technologies such as server and data storage virtualization can produce a 50% energy savings for new equipment in any data center. Often basic data center equipment, such as the UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) used for backup in case of a power outage, is replaced after many years as part of a company's plan to improve data center reliability. Since power for all IT equipment flows through the UPS, replacing an 80% efficient 20 year-old UPS with a new 95% efficient model will provide significant energy savings even though the motivation for replacement was based on improving UPS reliability. There is usually no need to build a brand new data center in order to gain significant energy efficiency improvements.
CM: There are new data center designs for making computer rooms more efficient. Surveys as recent as three years ago indicated that only a third of energy coming into a data center goes to IT equipment. The majority of the remaining energy goes to cooling and power distribution. Changes in design have improved such that 75%-80% of the energy coming into a data center can be used to power IT equipment under optimal conditions. For existing data centers, low cost items with return on investment in less than a year can save upwards of 10% of the energy in a data center, allowing growth in existing data centers and avoiding or delaying building a new data center. This delay is very important right now, as data center upgrades are very capital intensive, and many companies are unable or unwilling to make such capital expenditures at this time.
JC: There are many innovations that we can apply to designing a new data center to make them more energy efficient. However, with about 80% of data centers built before the dot com era, there are many ways to improve energy efficiency between 15-40% per year by taking simple actions. For example, one of the easiest ways to save up to 6% a year is by taking simple actions around airflow management such as removing underfloor cabling blockages.

IT: So companies are going green despite the world economic situation?

JL: Since all companies are dependent on IT for efficient operation, the incentive to make their IT operations more efficient provides an opportunity to also reduce energy use. Improving IT efficiency will always reduce IT costs and energy use. However, improving the efficiency of your IT systems in order to reduce costs provides a great opportunity to baseline and provide ongoing energy measurement to determine and trend energy use improvements.
CM: Yes. Many of these activities can be completed without significant investment or highly trained skills. As the return on many projects are less than a year, companies are performing these projects to reduce costs including any associated with the price of energy which has gone up over the last several years.
JC: Green has always been about energy cost savings and environmental benefits were an added bonus. With the economic situation, the energy cost savings remain the top reason to implement green IT, and the additional operational savings from making energy efficiency a priority are valued.

IT: Are industry organizations and government bodies becoming involved?

JL: Almost every industry organization and many government bodies are involved. These organizations include an alphabet soup of acronyms such as IEEE, ASHRAE, EPA, SPEC, LEED, DOE, EU, NYSERDA, NYSgrid, The Green Grid, and dozens of others. This has resulted in sometimes overlapping energy efficiency metrics. However, this varied work will converge on a few accepted standards for green IT metrics. These metrics will be the standards sanctioned by government organizations such as the EPA.
CM: There are several industry organizations that have brought together the power, cooling, and IT equipment vendors to improve the efficiency of equipment and to create metrics to measure the efficiency of a data center. Government bodies have established voluntary regulatory compliance programs for data center efficiency, leading the way for mandated regulations in the future should they be needed.
JC: Many industry and government organizations are involved in individual geographies, and we see more international collaboration as green IT becomes more mature and the groups are looking to promote the best practices. With governments getting more into energy and the environment, public policy may accelerate many of the programs in place today.

IT: So what should companies do first?

JL: Communicating with industry organizations and government bodies would be a good first step. Setting up an organization within your company to drive the effort would be another early step. Start by making one person responsible and give that person a title (like "Energy Czar"!). Web sites such as the U.S. Department of Energy's site at www.energy.gov or the EPA's site at www.energystar.gov/datacenters provide a wealth of information on green IT.
CM: Read the book. Seriously, getting the facts on energy usage in your organization with an understanding of the positive financial potential associated with energy management improvements (both tactical and strategic) should be your first step.
JC: Get the facts. The adage of you can't manage what you can't measure is true. Because the accountability for energy costs are spread across many departments within an organization, the first step is to determine where your energy costs are and then put a plan in place to address how to improve them.

John Lamb is a Senior Technical Staff Member for IBM Global Services in White Plains, NY. His book, The Greening of IT: How Companies Can Make a Difference for the Environment (IBM Press, 2009), is available in a print edition and as a downloadable eBook.

Chris Molloy is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and a member of the IBM Academy of Technology

Jody Cefola is the Site and Facilities Services Chief Marketing Officer for IBM Global Technology Services

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