Gartner predicts energy costs could soon consume as much as half of an organization's IT budget, so running cleaner, cooler and cheaper - from the data center to the farthest reaches of an organization - may make "green" the last best chance to stay out of the red.

"Data centers are the energy hogs of the 21st century," said Aneesh Chopra, Virginia's secretary of technology, "and if we all believe we need to have renewable energy and energy independence in this country, those of us in the IT community must step up and acknowledge that we are net consumers in a significant way."

Indeed the hogs have a huge appetite. Data centers consumed 61 billion kilowatt- hours of power in 2006, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report last year to Congress. That's 1.5 percent of all power consumed in the United States - at a cost of $4.5 billion. The EPA offered no approximation of how much of that is attributable to state and local government, but it estimated federal data centers were on the hook for 10 percent of that total.

If there is an imperative, it is over energy waste. "The information technology function is responsible for a major portion of an organization's power consumption - often needlessly so," said Mike Mittleman, deputy CIO of New York state.

The remedy begins with a "focus on improving power efficiency for those business aspects unquestionably under CIO control, [which] should have a salubrious impact on the organization's carbon footprint," Mittleman said, referring to emissions of man-made carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. "Given the spiraling cost of power, the CIO is obligated to implement strategies that will reduce consumption; responsible organization citizenship demands nothing less."

California CIO Teri Takai is less confident about the prospects: "We are the main power consumers in the state and our costs are rising. Replacing our old equipment with energy-efficient equipment sounds great but is very hard to justify. Replacing old facilities is even harder. And while virtualization sounds great, we are still fighting to consolidate physical data centers. How are we going to consolidate across servers that we can't get into the same room? I am a great believer that CIOs need to get the IT shop in order before they branch out to take over the world."

These are very real challenges, but government agencies can overcome them. There's tremendous opportunity for energy reduction and increased performance.

In a meeting with technology firms in Silicon Valley, Andrew Karsner, an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, characterized computer systems as "an absolute juggernaut" of energy consumption. He argued that industry and government share a moral obligation to ensure the country's energy security.

As energy consumption and related costs have increased for data center facilities, so too has the workload. In 2006, data centers around the world managed 161 exabytes, which equates to 161 billion GB. The information created, captured and replicated is on track to grow sixfold by 2010 to 988 exabytes.

But there is apparently no correlation between workload and energy consumption.

"In a typical data center, the electricity usage hardly varies at all, but the IT load varies by a factor of three or more. That tells you that we're not properly implementing power management," said Amory Lovins, chief scientist of the sustainability-focused Rocky Mountain Institute, in Seven Steps to a Green Data Center, published in Computerworld UK last year.

In addition, the Robert Frances Group estimates that power and cooling costs for data centers consume as much as 40 percent of the operating costs of the buildings in which they are housed. Moreover, Gartner estimates that 60 percent of a data center's energy consumption is wasted.

Always On vs. Turn It Off

The chief performance attributes

Paul W. Taylor Paul W. Taylor  |  Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.