Green IT Making a Comeback

By Mathew Schwartz

How would you like to save your organization $242,000 in power costs per year?

Green IT is Making a ComebackTwo years into a green IT initiative, that’s just what Oscar Ramos, executive director of technology services at Lone Star College, a two-year community college system in Houston with 52,000 students, has achieved.

Conceptually, you may remember green IT, which made a big splash a few years back: Reduce carbon footprints, minimize energy consumption, rethink architecture, help the environment. But then the worst economic recession since the Great Depression threw everyone off of their green game.

Now, green may be making a comeback. Indeed, a recent survey of 150 Silicon Valley CEOs found that a majority have now invested in green technologies.

To drive such initiatives, more organizations are designating green IT managers. According to Forrester Research Analyst Doug Washburn, “the green IT manager is accountable for delivering environmental and financial benefits through a successful green IT strategy.” Cue managing and prioritizing green IT projects, coordinating teams, documenting efforts and marshalling an organization to embrace more green IT.

But how can IT managers – dubbed green or not – help push their organization in greener directions?

Account for Soft Costs

According to Ramos, who’s in charge of Lone Star’s green IT initiative, the best way to go green is to focus on corporate culture – and how to change it – and to “keep the dollars in the forefront” of the discussion. That way, green becomes synonymous with cost-effectiveness and cost-efficiency.

Having C-level backing is also critical. “It’s really difficult for an IT manager alone to move this forward, because the costs can be very hard to see,” says Link Alander, associate vice chancellor of technology services at Lone Star. That’s because many of the savings will be in soft costs.

To measure those savings, you’ll need a baseline, for demonstrating differences later. So dig out the electricity and facilities-related bills for your organization’s locations and start measuring.

Eliminate Power-Hogging PCs

One excellent technique for embracing greener IT is at the refresh point. For example, Lone Star has been replacing its 12,000 desktops – located at 14 different campuses and centers – with HP desktops that have built-in vPro hardware and use more energy-efficient power supplies. “There’s no need for these 350-watt or 400-watt power supplies for PCs,” says Alander.

The vPro hardware works with Lone Star’s Altiris desktop management software, enabling IT to remotely shut down, repair or update PCs even if they’re turned off or unresponsive. “We’ve put in a variety of rules and settings to ensure that we’re properly shutting things down” on nights and weekends, says Ramos.

Another quick win: Installing motion sensors in classrooms to kill lights and power strips when rooms are empty. That saves on electricity as well as replacing expensive projector bulbs.

The Data Center Diet

Lone Star has also reviewed its data center design and technology to identify new ways to reduce costs. According to a 2009 study by Gartner Group, 12 percent of the costs of a data center go to facilities and energy.

Lone Star is also building a new data center that’s “completely designed around green technologies,” says Alander, both in its physical design and use of server and storage virtualization. “We’ve gone from 5 percent virtualization two year ago to 82 percent virtualized servers now.” Lone Star also replicates its storage area network between two data centers

Eliminating huge, standalone servers in favor of “a smaller, high-efficiency blade center,” says Alander, “has generated capital operating expense savings of $600,000.” Lone Star is also investigating how and where it might use virtualized desktops, together with thin clients, to further improve technology and energy costs.

Leading By Example

Are the lessons of Lone Star transferrable to the private sector and its attendant worries over demonstrating shareholder value?

“Any manager is going to have a challenge in the green IT spectrum,” says Alander. But educational institutions may face fewer challenges, he said, given their social mission. “We want to show the community that we practice what we preach.”

Mat Schwartz is a business and technology writer in Pennsylvania.