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Difficulties of Going Green in the Data Center

A concept little discussed in the business world as recently as a few years ago, green IT has entered the corporate mainstream with astonishing speed. Eager to lower energy spending and decrease their carbon footprint, companies of every size and description are working diligently to increase the energy efficiency of their IT infrastructure.

Yet for all the talk green IT has inspired, little has been said about an important fact: Sustainable IT practices are often directly in conflict with important IT priorities. For example, energy-saving technologies can require higher upfront investments than today’s tight IT budgets permit, while adding green solutions to a data center can increase risk in ways that jeopardize uptime.

In short, saying that green IT is a corporate priority is easy. Acting on that declaration without raising costs or compromising availability can be much trickier.

In order to ease this transition, a complete understanding of sustainable IT practices and a comprehensive plan for implementation are needed. This first article in a series of eight will explore the difficulties of going green in the data center. In later articles, I will provide insight for fully understanding data center sustainability, and best practices for implementing sustainable practices across your facility.

The complexities of going green in the data center

Green IT is without question one of the most sweeping trends in IT today. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by security software vendor Symantec Corporation found that 97 percent of businesses were at least discussing green IT and 45 percent had already implemented one or more green IT projects.

Such enthusiasm isn’t hard to explain. The recent recession and its aftereffects, along with rising energy rates, have made reducing capital and operating expenditures a higher priority than ever. Properly conceived and implemented green IT efforts can help organizations save money, comply with increasingly strict environmental regulations and enhance their public image.

Yet adopting green intentions is often simpler than acting on them cost-effectively, for reasons such as these:

Friction with corporate objectives

Most executives, both inside and outside IT, recognize the importance of environmental responsibility. Yet at the end of the day, their chief responsibility is to serve the interests of the company’s owners by maximizing profitability. Unfortunately, that duty and the desire to be green are to some extent inherently at odds with one another. After all, the very greenest data center would contain no servers, yet a company with no servers would have little prospect of success.

Thus, green IT isn’t something that companies simply adopt or don’t adopt. Creating a green data center involves striking an appropriate balance between conserving energy and driving revenue. That can be a far more demanding exercise than many decision-makers anticipate.

Friction with competing priorities

Going green would be much simpler if only it were free. In reality, every green IT project has a price tag. With capital budgets stretched thinner than ever, organizations must weigh green IT projects against other potential investments.  For example, assuming you can’t afford both, should you install solar panels on the roof of your data center or open a new branch office? Faced with decisions like that, businesses often table green projects in favor of alternative ventures with a greater or more immediate potential impact on revenues and profits.

Unfunded mandates

Green IT efforts often impose unfunded financial burdens on data centers. These sometimes result from senior managers announcing a corporate sustainability initiative and then failing to increase the IT and facilities budgets accordingly. In other cases, however, government environmental regulations are to blame.

For example, the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment legislation, which officially went into effect on April 1, 2010, requires roughly 5,000 of the nation’s largest organizations to measure and report their annual energy consumption. Yet few companies are equipped to assemble such figures at present. Acquiring that capability will cost money that many British data center managers will have to take from existing capital budgets. And UK companies won’t be the only ones in that situation for long. With concern over global warming on the rise, businesses in the U.S. and elsewhere are likely to face similar unfunded regulatory mandates soon.

Misaligned departmental priorities

At most companies, the IT department is responsible for purchasing hardware but the facilities department pays the power bill. As a result, IT managers often choose the most affordably-priced products rather than the most energy-efficient ones, which tend to be more expensive upfront but provide greater savings long term.

A similar dynamic discourages IT departments from adopting renewable energy sources and other green power technologies. Maintaining availability is one of IT’s most important jobs. But green solutions may add complexity—and therefore risk—to IT operations. Thus, IT decision-makers have little incentive to implement green power technologies. If everything goes right, the facilities department will get most of the credit for lowering energy spend. If anything goes wrong, however, IT will receive all of the blame for increasing downtime.

Despite the difficulties, the merits of greening your data center are beyond debate. In an era of tight budgets, saving money by increasing the energy efficiency of your IT operations is self-evident. Furthermore, reducing your carbon footprint has positive implications not only for your company’s public image but for the long-term health of the planet as well.

Unfortunately, though, there’s no such thing as a painless path to sustainable IT. However, a variety of practical green solutions capable of delivering measurable return on investment are available today. My next article will preface the benefits of sustainable solutions and focus on better understanding a common accepted model of commercial building sustainability, which can be applied to data centers and will provide a foundation for future implementation.

John Collins is segment manager of data centers for Eaton Corporation.

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2 thoughts on “Difficulties of Going Green in the Data Center

  1. John Is spot on with the issues. It is time for the CFO and CEO to wake up and align responsibility and accountability so benefits and costs are assigned to the same players. Less then 50% of CIO’s pay for their actual energy bill today.Time for change

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