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A Pause For Reflection On Where IT is On Earth Day 2010

By Simon Mingay | April 22, 2010 | 0 Comments

Earth Day is upon us again, an opportunity to pause and reflect on where the IT industry is. On the whole I’m very optimistic and boy have we come a long way in the last 5 years, particularly relative to other industry sectors. 2005 was when I started actively covering how climate change and sustainability would impact IT organizations and the industry. While the issues of toxics, e-waste, paper and to a limited extent energy and materials efficiency had been on the industry table for a few years, particularly in Europe, they were certainly not a mainstream let alone strategic priority for IT management. Not wilful neglect, mostly just bigger fish to fry. Certainly hardly anyone in IT organization were thinking about greenhouse gas emissions, few of the vendors were talking about it publicly, and only academics were talking about embodied energy and the environmental aspects of the IT supply chain.

The mindset back then was over engineer everything, and everything should be turned on full throttle, 24/7. Performance and cost was king, and no one questioned the sense of that.

While environmental health and safety (EH&S), environmental management systems (EMS) and compliance information systems had been around for along time, the ideas of explicitly thinking about the applications of IT through a lens of  sustainability, climate change and energy efficiency were radical. It certainly felt like pushing a boulder up a hill, and it was certainly something one had to explain to people, once you moved beyond compliance. Now Smart Grid is a reality, we are regularly talking to clients about Smart Buildings, energy and carbon management capabilities, and the role that IT can play. Despite the hype,  investment in these low-carbon solution areas is very patchy, which is very frustrating for the vendors. But there is movement and even rapid movement in some areas.

Beyond smart grid, an area I think that is particularly interesting at the moment is what’s happening in supply chains. Initiatives like the Sustainability Consortium, activities from the retail sector such as WalMart, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Ikea etc, and even the recent announcement from IBM (see previous blog). All of which are turning the screw on the supply chain and demanding greater transparency and to a lesser extent better performance. This is a real material change that will have long term structural implications. And IT will be a key enabler to making it happen.

When we started our first low-carbon vendor assessment in 2007 in partnership with the WWF, we had to explain what we meant by many of the things we were looking for and were frequently met with glazed eyes. The response to the updated assessment we are just finishing now in 2010 is very different. While many vendors still struggle, the majority mostly get it and have responded well. Some have really thought long and hard and have some great ideas and solutions. Some are significantly more challenged than they like to think they are, but have made progress. Most still think this is just about energy efficiency rather than a much broader set of environmental issues covering carbon (of course), water, toxics, materials, and the very broad impact those have a range of environmental issues.

Back in 2005 enterprises rarely asked detailed questions about the environmental performance of a product (beyond asking for Energy Star) and even less about the environmental performance of the vendor. In 2010 that is so very different. All the IT vendors are now having to put significant resources into responding to these questions in RFIs and RFPs. Many enterprises are confused by how to interpret those responses, but they are at least asking and demanding improvements.

Transparency and real meaningful data is now found in many of the vendors CSR reports, not all, but its getting better. Of course there is still much vacuous PR, but there is more substance overall.

The industry was plagued by piecemeal PR led environmental initiatives being stitched together to create the illusion of a sustainability strategy.  That still exists, but much less so.  In recent weeks we’ve seen a flurry of stories in the media about “coal fired data centers” targeting the mega data centers of the internet and cloud service providers. This focus of the media reflects the changing stakeholder expectations, poor communication and transparency from the companies concerned, and the risks of half baked sustainability strategies.

In 2010 we are at the beginning of the end of what I refer to as Green IT Phase 1. Phase 1 was about the low hanging fruit in the data center and at the desktop. There is still much that many IT organizations need to do to improve the environmental performance of their IT services, even just to exploit that low hanging fruit – so we are far from done. But a significant enough proportion of enterprises have blazed the trail, established the good and best practices, such that it is rapidly becoming business as usual, and has sufficient momentum to continue. One area I thought that would have moved on, but really has not is the desire to over engineer, and run everything full bore 24/7.  I regularly see IT organizations sweating over the most energy efficient server,  but then massively over specing with regards to capacity and turning off the power management capabilities..

Green IT phase 2 will be harder because the low hanging fruit have gone, and the business case is less clear cut. But as the price of energy continues to rise far ahead of the rate of inflation, as IT continues to be in the climate change spotlight, and as other environmental aspects that touch IT come to the fore, so the need to go further will emerge.

Expect to see much more effort on dynamic energy management in the data center, better instrumentation of the data center in particular, both of which will help address the issues of everything being left on full power 24/7.  Energy efficiency for storage and the network, much better capacity management, and if I was feeling particularly optimistic I might even say cleaning up applications. Interestingly I’ve been asked about the efficiency of code a couple of times recently, and of course there is plenty of opportunity there – but precious little real activity. So I would not expect that one to move very far anytime soon.

Having said all of this, don’t think for a minute enterprises or the IT industry have come over all ethical. The driver behind all of this is efficiency, reputational risk, branding, exploiting commercial opportunities and to some extent compliance. 

So on Earth Day 2010 I’d give IT organizations and the IT industry collectively a “B-“ with comment to the effect of “while teacher is watching frequently tries reasonably hard, concentration has improved massively, but still under achieving, should spend less time admiring himself in the mirror, expect great things next year, keep up the good work”. I could have come up with a few reasons to be pessimistic, but today I’m feeling optimistic.

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