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By | Roy Bamforth 26th March 2007 09:50

How green is my vendor?

Not very, in many cases

Environmental issues are becoming a big concern for those involved in managing IT and communications. You can tell this because just about every other supplier is touting their green credentials.

Often they have only reduced their power consumption by a fraction of a megawatt, run an electric shuttle bus to their out of town business park location, or have just switched to "low energy" drinks in their staff cafeteria, but it's presented as being green.

It might make good marketing sense for vendors to make every effort to boost their green credentials, but is it really making a difference to customers, the vendors, or perhaps more importantly, the environment?

There are of course many green issues that might have an influence on the IT department, some directly affecting budgets, others involving relationships with other parts of the business.

The amount of power and cooling needed to run computers is often a first thought, then the chemicals and paper consumed by high speed laser printers and the legal requirement to re-cycle old desktops, laptops, and mobile phones (sometimes via the junior members of the departments). Marketing and personnel departments in many companies are starting to ask "how green can we say we are?"

While vendors are keen to tout how they might help slap a little spot of green paint, this generally only addresses one or two environmental issues and does not take a sufficiently broad view. The wider environmental challenge is about more than reducing power usage in one area, and has to encompass commercial impacts on the environment across the organisation, rather than just simplistic green ROI calculations.

It also needs to take into account the entire supply chain from component vendor to end of life, especially considering the legislative directives around waste and hazardous substances (WEEE and RoHS), and whether resources being used are sustainable or not.

These legal pressures will only increase as governments attempt to tackle the green issues further. So, for businesses of all types it is an organisational "lifestyle" change that has to be applied in a commercially sustainable business context.

This broader impact is difficult to quantify. For example, moving compute power from desktop PCs into a shared server farm may focus attention on the amount of power and cooling consumed in the server room, whereas the savings generated elsewhere from reduced desktop energy consumption, noise and even the frequency for upgrades may be missed.

This plays into another perhaps more important impact on the business - the red line of finance as well as the green line - which means no green measures will succeed unless they are commercially as well as environmentally sustainable.

Making investments in environmentally positive IT can have other wide-ranging benefits beyond simply reducing costs and environmental footprint. While IT consumes power and precious resources during its manufacture and use, it can change working patterns and behaviour in a way that reduces its environmental impact over its lifetime.

For example mobile, remote conferencing, and collaboration technologies allow unnecessary travel to be avoided, but they also permit workers to be more efficient as they can fill the time when they are on "standby" - between full-on work and home life - with productive tasks.

Dispersed teams can collaborate with telephone, web and video conferencing tools that take advantage of the high availability and relatively low cost of broadband, compression technologies and open standards, and so avoid the need to waste precious time and resources in travelling.

However, some initially positive moves might have negative consequences. Permitting home working may be encouraging employees to live further from the office, increasing commute time and costs and carbon emissions when they do travel. Some decisions could initially appear green, but damaging from a longer-term business view: for example, a company goes bust, so employees, local suppliers and customers have to move or travel further. This means taking all aspects into consideration.

Identifying and measuring business propositions based on a broader perspective is not new, and at Quocirca we're often advising companies to look beyond the simpler economics of Return On Investment (ROI) or total cost of ownership (TCO) which are often narrowly focused on cost savings. To Quocirca this means understanding the broader, Total Value Proposition (TVP) which takes into account the situation both inside and outside the company to identify and quantify two further areas - increasing value, and managing risk.

A similar approach can be taken to build a wider picture that combines environmental, personal, and corporate responsibility with commercial pragmatism in a sustainable way, identifying the impact on external resources and internal corporate resources - an Environmental Sustainable Proposition - for IT investment.

This type of sustainable proposition is not simply an eco-friendly hair shirt of making reductions like asking the IT department to run the server room on half power. It is about how to exploit technology in a commercially productive way for the benefit of the entire business, and in a sustainable way for the benefit of the environment. There are three areas of focus - reduce, replace, and re-use.

  • Reduce energy consumption and resources used by taking a holistic view across the organisation. As well as focusing on the savings that can be made in power efficient technologies, look to virtualise resources that can be shared across an organisation rather than working more narrowly on a department by department basis where the positive moves in one area may negatively affect another. The goal is to reduce total space, energy consumption and waste of both raw material and energy, and as a result reduce complexity, risk and ultimately, costs.
  • Replace inefficient business and IT processes with efficient ones. Instead of moving people and physical goods, wherever possible move information. Invest in communications infrastructure, rather than transport and travel. Digitised assets and communication not only reduces costs, but increases flexibility and lowers the carbon footprint. Centralising and virtualising IT resources increases utilisation, reduces costs and allows smaller incremental future investments.
  • Re-use and realise the full potential of existing investments in both IT and the communications infrastructure. Extending the lifetime beyond initial deployment plans delays replacement costs and reduces waste. Services and products that can be partitioned and modularised can be more easily disassembled for re-use.

There are many further areas to investigate, but the key to a truly sustainable environmental proposition is how it combines the commercial needs of the business with the broader environmental imperatives. In the coming months, we will be taking a closer look at how the sustainable issues fit with the commercial realities of IT investments, and the environmental aspirations of companies and individuals, and see what vendors are proposing. In short, looking at how to be green without going into the red or feeling blue!

Copyright © 2007, Quocirca

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