What is Green?

While outside of my window the world is currently white with fresh snow, I’ve been spending my morning thinking about green … that is, Green IT.

From my perspective “Green IT” is about putting together a strategy and implementation plan to improve the environmental footprint of IT within an organization (or for oneself). This includes the full life-cycle; from manufacturing to daily use to disposal. It seems to me many discussions about Green IT are reduced to consumption of electricity, but it is important to have a broader perspective.

Given that Green IT can be such a broad topic it is useful to have some taxonomy to help divide the issue into actionable areas. One possible view is the division of Green IT issues into manufacturing, use, and disposal.

Using that framework it follows that we need to explicitly include “Green IT” into our purchasing processes. We need to ask vendors detailed questions about their processes and how they measure their “Greenness” or environmental sustainability practices. I think most organizations (at least in Canada) have procurement processes that include sustainability in their evaluations, but I think within most organizations there remains a gap in the ability to objectively assess the responses from the vendors.

Similarly, when we look to the other end of the process – disposal – most organizations have some methodology to ensure that the old technology isn’t just sent to the local landfill. High commodity prices helped develop an industry to receive and recycle old technology. I toured such a facility a few years ago and was impressed by the noisy yet sophisticated process of mechanically pulverizing old computers into shards of metal and plastic then sorting the debris automatically.

It is probably the area of “use” that still requires the most effort by IT leaders. There are some aspects of the use of technology that are (almost) directly controllable; there are other aspects in which our main tool is influence on others.

The area of greatest control by IT leaders is what I would call “behind the walls”. This is the equipment in wiring closets and data centres. Already many organizations have utilized technologies such as virtualization to reduce the footprint and increase flexibility, often without our customers even realizing we made significant changes in infrastructure.

The area of least control by IT leaders is the end-user devices and end-user behaviours. That is the myriad of printers, computers, phones and other equipment that pervades the organization and a similarly complex set of ways in which individuals choose to use the equipment. It may be one of the areas of least control by IT leaders, but it may also provide the largest potential return on investment. While changing a particular user action may save only pennies, the cumulative effect can save millions. My favourite personal example is moving an organization to a shared print service, thereby decreasing paper usage from 72 to 50 million sheets per year with an overall savings of over $2M in a few years. One of the lessons from this “greening of print” initiative was that it required a complex set of standards, education, and innovation to make substantive change.

The topic of Green IT is broad and continually changing. I suspect I will have more to say on the topic after I have the pleasure of presenting, discussing and debating Green IT issues with several esteemed colleagues on a panel at the Cybera Summit next week.

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