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Mark Peters
Mark Peters
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Green IT Discussion Changes

New tools and technologies have made it easier to be green in the data center, even if we don't call it that these days.

Back in 2008, I remember attending many storage industry events and they all had one thing in common: a thematic sea of "green". Indeed, there was a palpable buzz about all things that smacked of "green IT" (which pretty much everything did, because -- to coin a phrase -- green was the new black then). Every vendor had a story to tell about how its technology advanced the green cause, which was primarily defined as energy efficiency. Even the "Big Blue" staff all sported green jerseys at some events. But, sometime in late 2008, the pejorative term "greenwashing" became widespread and that even those truly interested in the topic became jaded.

What had changed? Well, of course, at that point the economic recession was looming large and "green fatigue" moved in, which meant that most of the buzz around energy efficiency and green IT faded away. Not surprisingly, more fundamental business issues and IT concerns took precedence in the face of the economic malaise.

I had cause to think back to all this when I was recently reviewing some of the latest research from the Enterprise Strategy Group, which, amongst a whole lot more, had investigated current attitudes to the energy topic. It was a study of the storage market in North America and Western Europe, and had asked users what elements within TCO were of primary importance to them when choosing a storage solution. In North America only 3% of respondents indicated "power and cooling costs" as their prime determinant; while for Western Europe it was relatively much higher -- 14% chose the issue, most likely due to the higher cost of energy in Europe and a few more metropolitan areas with real supply constraints -- but absolutely still a low number. So has all that boisterous green-flag-waving of 2008 been relegated to a desultory murmur? Has "green" become less important? Maybe technological improvements made in the last few years brought the issue under control? It remains a fascinating set of questions, not only because it is a complex and challenging arena but also because it has potential to create value in multiple dimensions beyond the data center.

[ How can being green save money? Read Harvest The Benefits Of Storage Virtualization. ]

In digging around for this article, what I determined is that although the topic has largely faded from the "blogotwitterati" scene, the rationale for paying attention has not. Progress continues to be made by technology vendors as well as by industry organizations such as the Green Grid and the Storage Networking Industry Association. However, there's surprisingly little in the trade press that points to the potential savings or the opportunities to improve business. Maybe we could ask New York Mayor Bloomberg and others -- in addition to building a flood wall around lower Manhattan and limiting the size of sodas -- to consider some more stringent focus on, and rules about, the use of power in data centers!? That said, turning back to what we can control, it seems that "green storage/IT" -- at its most pragmatic, practical and business-fundamental level -- has always really been about managing TCO by striving for the most efficient operation of IT. In moving toward maximum IT efficiency there can be significant top- and bottom- line business outcomes as well as the sustainability improvements. To start, less energy will be consumed, but there will also be less need for floor space, materials, packaging, shipping, manufacturing and raw materials.

Importantly, from a business perspective, the argument for energy efficiency and sustainability is not altruistic. (Maybe that was part of the problem back a few years ago, when everything "green" was couched in "cuddly, do-gooder" terms?) In the U.S., we are reaching the point where data centers spend more on energy than they spend on IT infrastructure. So, while it is certainly important and gratifying that the most efficient IT operations will likely have a much lower environmental impact than the norm, efficient IT also very directly lowers expenses and drives higher business productivity. In other words, this is indeed about sustainability -- not only in the environmental sense but also in the IT/business sense.

So, what else has changed in recent years to reduce the green focus and do any of those changes in and of themselves either contribute to, and/or drive, a renewed need for it? When the green IT buzz first broke out it there was much made about how enterprise data centers could be made more efficient. We heard about better building design, standards of measurement and improved hardware and software functionality with improved management automation for management. Then came Cloud (whether public, private or hybrid), which represented another path to improve IT function, simplify operations and reduce costs … and engendered a separate, parallel debate concerning the energy efficacy of cloud computing. Are we just shifting the problem, or are we actually promoting and using an optimized approach? In reality, each of the major options -- traditional IT, cloud or hybrid cloud -- can have the potential for greater business efficiencies including positive energy and sustainability advances.

In 2007, when discussions -- and dismay -- about spiraling data center energy usage first spawned the rush to green IT, we were still largely operating in a pre-cloud model. Every enterprise had one or more data centers and probably maintained proprietary assets at a co-lo facility as well. Server virtualization was in its early stages of acceptance and adoption. The Cloud was just over the horizon. At that point the three key tenets of IT efficiency -- consolidation, optimization, automation -- were being applied to enterprise owned and operated data centers:

-- Consolidation applied to everything: data centers, storage, networks, applications and especially servers via virtualization.

-- Optimization delivered a payback once consolidation had taken place, through such tools as the tiering of data and applications by importance and resource access, as well as by deduplication. Total costs of operation were often reduced, while business continuity was better enabled with more virtualization.

-- Automation focused on reduced management complexity and effort and increased deployment of business process software.

If we were still looking only for the best ways to optimize these enterprise data centers, all of that advice and those tools still make sense. But there have also been numerous technology innovations from Big-Tech and start-ups alike, with new products and functionality that can reduce environmental impact and improve IT efficiency. Truth be told, this has been a continuing effort and focus since the gold-old-green-days of 2008 -- it just doesn't get talked about much. In storage for instance, most vendors are leveraging software to huge effect in terms of storage efficiency. Time was when it was all about the hardware, more efficient power supplies and maybe a spun-down disk here and there. Now, nearly every storage provider has some version of software for automated storage tiering, thin provisioning, data de-duplication, intelligent cooling and data compression. Software-defined-greenness anyone? Beyond just storage, there is also a growing number of integrated (converged) infrastructure systems that combine compute, storage, network, virtualization and sometimes even applications into a single package, with benefits in terms of both simpler operations and greater (green) efficiencies.

Bottom line? Perhaps I took an overly negative view by saying green seems to be receiving less emphasis these days. Perhaps it has "converged" into overall IT efficiency. But it still seems to me deserving of more direct attention -- after all, the world is spinning (ie, paying for) an awful lot of stuff that simply never gets referenced. Is that optimum, let alone green? I just thought I'd run the green flag once more up the -- naturally sustainable -- pole.

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