Green IT: Helping to Create a Sustainable Planet

Guest Editor's Introduction • San Murugesan • May 2011

Green IT: Helping to Create a Sustainable PlanetAs the world's climate heats up and more people become concerned about the environment, a new spotlight appears on information technology. IT affects our environment in many ways, but most people — including many IT professionals — don't realize this. Each stage of a computer's life, from production and use to disposal, presents environmental challenges. As businesses and governments try to balance growth with environmental risks, we're called upon to make IT systems and their use greener and, more importantly, to apply IT in innovative ways to address environmental problems.

Green IT, also known as green computing, is an umbrella term referring to environmentally sound information technologies and systems, applications, and practices. It encompasses three complementary IT-enabled approaches to improving environmental sustainability:

  • the efficient and effective design, manufacture, use, and disposal of computer hardware, software, and communication systems with no or minimal impact on the environment;
  • the use of IT and information systems to empower — to support, assist, and leverage — other enterprise-wide environmental initiatives; and
  • the harnessing of IT to help create awareness among stakeholders and promote the green agenda and green initiatives.

Green IT 1.0 and 2.0

The first wave of green IT — the Greening of IT, or Green IT 1.0 — was internally focused on reengineering IT products and processes to improve their energy efficiency, maximize their use, and meet compliance requirements. However, the vast majority of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that deteriorate our environment come from non-IT sources; IT contributes only about two to three percent of global GHG emissions. So, to create significant energy savings and improve overall environmental sustainability, we need to focus our attention and efforts on other areas.

Greening by IT, also known as Green IT 2.0, is externally focused and empowers a range of other green initiatives aimed at reducing environmental degradation and reducing GHG emissions. This second wave is about IT-based sustainability innovations. For instance, in addition to being green itself, IT can help create a more sustainable environment by

  • coordinating, reengineering, and optimizing the supply chain, manufacturing activities, and organizational workflows to minimize the environmental impact;
  • making business operations, buildings, and other systems energy efficient;
  • helping decision making by analyzing, modeling, and simulating environmental impacts;
  • providing platforms for ecomanagement and emissions trading;
  • auditing and reporting energy consumption and savings; and
  • offering environmental knowledge-management systems and decision-support systems.

There have been major developments in recent years in a number of areas: more energy-efficient computers, virtualization, data center design and operation, power-aware software, green standards, green adoption maturity models, and measures leveraging IT to reduce its carbon footprint and GHG emissions. Several recent issues of technical magazines and journals, including IT Professional, have focused on green IT (see the Related Links for more). To give you a bird's eye view on this topic and its ongoing advances, we present a collection of seven articles focusing on different aspects of green IT.

Presenting a Snapshot: What's in It for You

Beginning with a brief account of IT’s environmental impact, my article, " Harnessing Green IT: Principles and Practices," outlines what green IT means and presents a holistic approach to greening IT. It also highlights different ways that IT can help improve environmental sustainability. In the next article, "The Road to Greener IT Pastures," Kirk W. Cameron outlines many promising techniques for immediate efficiency improvements. He emphasizes that with a little effort and a plan in place, improved energy efficiency can significantly reduce ICT's total energy consumption and costs.

Data centers must become greener as well. In their article, "Designing Energy-Efficient Servers and Data Centers," John Carter and Karthick Rajamani discuss a set of design principles for building more energy-efficient systems, including determining how to distribute the task of improving energy efficiency between hardware and software. They also identify key technical problems that must be addressed to substantially increase data center energy efficiency.

To understand how companies perceive and adopt green IT, Jonas Hedman and Stefan Henningsson analyze 14 Danish companies in their article, "Three Strategies for Green IT." They identify three fundamentally different strategies that the companies used — storefront, which focuses on external presentation; tuning, which involves simple changes for improved efficiency; and redesign, which reinvents or reengineers the company to leverage green IT's potential. To gain both short- and long-term opportunities, they advocate the pursuit of these three strategies in combination, as appropriate.

IT managers need to move beyond first-wave green IT strategies of energy savings and regulatory compliance. In their article, "The Next Wave of Sustainable IT," Robert R. Harmon and Haluk Demirkan present a roadmap for IT managers for embarking the journey and a systematic framework for conceptualizing the implementation of sustainable IT. They also outline the approaches of six major organizations that have adopted world-class corporate sustainability programs and green IT strategies.

RFID's potential in green IT is less known. To unleash RFID's green potential, Indranil Bose and Shipeng Yan review 13 case studies in the article, "The Green Potential of RFID Projects: A Case-Based Analysis." They evaluate RFID's contribution to green objectives that include accurately tracking a perishable item to prevent its spoilage and saving energy in operations from growing and harvesting to packaging and refrigeration.

In the concluding article, "Green IT: The Next Five Years," Bhuvan Unhelkar examines green IT trends and their immediate, mid-range, and long-term impacts. This analysis will help you to set your green agenda.

Green IT Education and Certification

Despite some recent welcome developments and growing recognition of IT's role in addressing environmental problems, there's a disparity in the level of green IT understanding across companies, IT professionals, and IT users. A few universities and training institutes have taken the lead and started offering courses on green IT, and others are expected to follow suit. New certification programs in green IT have also been recently introduced. See the Related Links page for examples.

Green Prospects and Our Role

Green IT is both an economic and environmental imperative. Several case studies on greening efforts reveal that businesses that reduce their environmental (carbon) footprints can also reduce costs and improve their public images. IT professionals, CIOs, and IT support staff are thus being called upon to deliver environmentally sustainable IT solutions. Even simple steps by one individual or organization can make a huge difference when leveraged across the vast number of individuals and organizations across the world. Smart companies will adopt innovative environmental strategies to innovate, create value, and build a competitive advantage.

Triggered by the imminent introduction of more green taxes and regulations, there will be a major increase in demand for green IT products and solutions in the near future. The greening of and by IT will continue to be a necessity, not an option.

IT professionals, educators, researchers, and businesses can make a difference and help create a sustainable environment that benefits current and future generations. Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them." I hope this issue of Computing Now helps you to develop a green mindset and motivates you to do what you can to make IT and its use greener. I invite you to share your research findings, views, and ideas on this topic, as well as best practices and your experiences in greening IT.

San Murugesan San Murugesan is an adjunct professor at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, a trainer on green IT, co-editor (with G.R. Gangadharan) of the upcoming book, Harnessing Green IT: Principles and Practices (Wiley, 2011), and editor of the IEEE Computer Society EssentialSet "Understanding and Implementing Green IT." He's also an associate editor in chief of IT Professional. Contact him at san1 at internode dot net.

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