Green IT Beyond Virtualization: The Case For Consolidation

E-mail is the backbone of most organizations--and a huge resource hog. Can we make it greener?

October 22, 2008

6 Min Read
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Consolidation projects have been popular since long before green IT was the rage. A few years ago, considerations such as operational efficiency, centralized policy management, reliability, and security were typically the business drivers. But now, with almost nightly news coverage of global warming, stricter domestic and international government regulations, and intense public pressure on companies to adopt environmentally friendly practices, some businesses have shown a willingness to spend a bit more on programs that increase their green cred.

If the initiative is such that it can be boiled down and trumpeted in press releases, all the better.

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But for most of us, the reality is that businesses still expect IT to cut overall costs, even as they mandate greenness. The good news is that these goals aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, more often than not, cost-cutting consolidation efforts result in lower environmental impact, advancing the green mandate. E-mail is a prime example in that it's one of the most ubiquitous enterprise applications. Many users and organizations consider e-mail to be the most critical form of communication they have, surpassing the telephone. If the PBX goes down, users will pull out their cell phones and manage to connect with customers. But if the corporate e-mail system falters, widespread panic generally ensues.


Eliminating multiple sites hosting e-mail servers reduces IT's operational footprint and associated utility consumption.

Fewer servers acquired and operated results in lower consumption of power and cooling. Fewer assets must be disposed of during the next upgrade cycle.

Data deduplication provides large backup capacity with significantly less storage power consumption, fewer tapes and tape libraries, and reduced bandwidth.

WAN optimization allows for a greater number of satellite offices and telecommuters, reducing travel.

So it's no surprise that e-mail-related projects are highly visible--particularly when something goes wrong--and not typically where IT experiments. Still, there's room for innovative consolidation approaches that provide a robust e-mail environment while reducing the number of servers, improving reliability and service levels, and lowering costs associated with backups and related resources such as disks or tapes. All of which add up to a checkmark under the "green" column.

In today's active merger and acquisition environment, many enterprises are experiencing significant growth. As new companies are purchased, IT is faced with the daunting task of integrating networks, back-office systems, and front-office apps without disrupting operations. It's not uncommon to find companies operating a mishmash of internal e-mail systems owned by various subsidiaries. This type of inefficiency provides an ideal consolidation opportunity to reduce complexity, operational costs, and IT's environmental footprint.

A good example of e-mail gone wild is a U.S. client we recently helped to merge more than 20 disparate systems, including several versions of Exchange (5.5, 2000, and 2003), Lotus Notes, and Sendmail running on Unix and Linux, serving its 200 locations. This client faced significant administrative and operational inefficiencies. Maintaining an accurate company-wide address list, even a simple task such as moving the mailbox of an employee transferring from one division to another, became increasingly difficult and costly. In addition, operating underutilized servers, storage, and backup systems in multiple locations was costing too much in hardware, licensing, and utility and energy.

The ultimate way to consolidate e-mail is to outsource the whole thing to the cloud, using a hosted service model such as IBM's hosted Lotus Notes service or Microsoft's Hosted Exchange, or a Web-based offering such as Google's Gmail. However, this route is still seen by some enterprises as unproven and insecure; recent outages experienced by Gmail users only add to IT's unwillingness to hand over the keys to the enterprise e-mail kingdom.

A more attractive tactic is to learn from cloud providers and take a similar approach internally, by consolidating e-mail operations and providing access over the WAN or Internet. Assuming economies of scale apply, such an internal consolidation project lets you keep control within the organization, cut costs, and reduce your e-mail system's overall environmental impact.

Features available in advanced e-mail systems can be combined with new storage, WAN optimization for high availability, and data deduplication technologies to create a centralized e-mail system that provides reliable operation and maintains many of the benefits of a decentralized approach. These include fast response times and a reasonable level of productivity for users during connectivity disruptions; a reduced overall number of e-mail servers; and the elimination or great reduction of the number of tapes needed for backup.

Fibre Channel or iSCSI storage may be necessary if, for example, you need specific disk I/O performance based on user concurrency or e-mail activity levels. But what makes a SAN attractive from a consolidation standpoint are the storage-based snapshot or clone-based backup capabilities offered on high-end devices from top-tier vendors such as EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM, and NetApp, as well as smaller vendors such as Compellent. Storage-based snapshots can be used to recover quickly when a restore is needed, eliminating the need for daily tape-based backups.


E-mail consolidation lets IT better implement and enforce a retention policy, which is crucial in regulated industries.

Consolidation reduces administrative and management costs.

Efficient archiving and e-discovery are difficult if not impossible in decentralized environments.

Even with new green initiatives aimed at creating more efficient storage arrays, such as spinning down or turning off inactive drives, storage continues to be a major power consumer in the data center--up to 40% by some estimates--so it may seem counterintuitive to say installing a storage area network can help with your green efforts. However, it's the high-availability and scalability features, like hardware-based snapshots and replication, available on modern SANs that enable the type of massive consolidation of e-mail resources discussed here, and that can ultimately improve efficiency and lower the overall environmental footprint in environments large enough to reap the full benefits of consolidation.

Of course, from a green perspective, even a consolidated backup system is far from zero footprint, so it's vital to reduce the amount of data that must be stored and the resources required to send mail across the enterprise. In our extended Green IT report,we discuss in much more depth data deduplication and WAN optimization technologies.

Behzad Behtash is an independent IT consultant who previously served as CIO of Tetra Tech EM and VP of systems for AIG Financial Products. Write to him at [email protected].

Illustration by BloomImages/Corbis

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