Powering and cooling data centers will match the capital costs of the data centers by 2012, according to International Data Corp. Private-sector IT leaders have shown that reconfigured data centers and better heat tracking mechanisms reduce the electricity required to power and cool servers, and state and local governments are beginning to follow suit. Green IT currently may not be top priority for most government CIOs, but surging electricity bills may soon force government to get hip with surprising rapidity.
The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) featured green IT on a conference agenda for the first time at its annual meeting in September 2007. Each year, NASCIO bases its conference agenda on what state CIOs identify as their top priorities. Though CIOs listed green IT as an important issue, it still failed to make the top 20, said Doug Robinson, executive director of NASCIO.
"When you're competing with front-page issues like IT security, consolidation, disaster recovery, ERP [enterprise resource planning] implementation, ERP strategies, health information technology - that's the challenge. It's not as strategic as some of those," Robinson said. "It's much more tactical."
Large technology vendors - such as IBM, HP, Dell and AMD - are encouraging green IT in both the public and private sectors by joining industry initiatives, like the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which started last June. Participating companies promise to build machines that are at least 90 percent efficient in their power use by 2010.
"A few years ago, nobody cared much about how much energy they were using," said Brad Westpfahl, director of government industry programs at IBM. "They were trying to optimize other things. Now the cost of energy has gone up, and political awareness of the impact on the environment has gone up."
Green Data Centers
A number of solutions have emerged to help reduce energy consumption in data centers. One of the lowest levels of technology, the computer chip, can make servers greener. Servers can use multicore chips, which enable the machines to perform more computational tasks with less electricity.
Many government data centers waste energy by spreading work across many servers, leaving most of them with unused capacity. This leaves agencies paying to power and cool extra servers that don't need to be in the data center. Server consolidation initiatives reduce this problem. These plans may include deployment of virtualization software that can compress a data center's work down to just a few servers, further reducing power and cooling needs.
IT departments can also deploy software that more efficiently juggles computing tasks. For instance, IBM released a product called IBM Director, which lets IT departments maintain a power consumption level prescribed by the department. IT staff specify the priorities of the different tasks. Director helps them schedule all IT jobs to stay within the constraints of that power consumption level. For example, Director could tell the data center to execute a job immediately or wait to perform the task during non-peak electricity times.
"I may change when my payroll gets done. I don't care if it gets done at three in the afternoon or three in the morning, as long as the checks go out the next day," Westpfhal said.
He warned, however, that governments need to thoroughly assess the amount of power they use and the amount they can realistically reduce before implementing such a product.
A data center's layout is another factor in increasing energy efficiency, according to Andrea Di Maio, a vice president at Gartner. "Simulation software can allow you to look at airflows in the data center, highlighting hot spots there. By just repositioning some of the racks, it actually has a tremendous impact," he said. "The interesting thing about green IT is that when you think about it, you can have a
number of quick wins."
NASCIO's Robinson predicted green IT will gain prominence in the public sector as energy costs climb. Part of government's sluggishness on the issue stems from the fact that many agency data centers are renovated state office buildings that weren't built to be data centers. Many of these buildings aren't conducive to the rack-mounted servers, blade servers and storage area network arrays that energy-efficient data centers contain.
Due to the bureaucracy involved in building their own data centers, many governments may get greener by outsourcing data center operations to energy-efficient contractors, said Robinson.
"It's a capital construction project, and it can take many years to get it approved," Robinson explained. Governments unable to approve those projects would likely outsource to vendors with green data centers.
Many state and local governments remain quiet about their green IT research for now, according to James Costa, vice president of government industry for IBM. He said many don't want to publicize their efforts without completing their needs assessments.
"If you're talking 12 months from now, you'll see that three or four state governments have major efforts in this area they've actually had results from," Costa said.
Di Maio said energy-efficient data centers would be an easy first step for green IT in government. Green data centers already have well established designs, and the cost savings are obvious. The next challenge will be implementing green initiatives that don't necessarily reduce energy bills, but promote green values. An example would be a more environmentally friendly disposal process for computers.
Green IT will have different meanings for different government agencies, based on what produces each agency's "carbon footprint," said Di Maio. For example, the carbon footprint of an agency mostly composed of employees using computers would come from electricity consumption. Energy-efficient data centers and computers would be the focus of green activities for those agencies.
On the other hand, the overall carbon footprint of an agency focused on managing fleets of trucks comes from internal combustion engines. So rather than reducing data center energy consumption, that agency might deploy software that helps the agency use vehicles more efficiently.
Financial motivations are a start, Di Maio added, but only a cultural change will make government IT truly green.
Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.