A few years ago, it seemed many organizations were undertaking drives for green IT - companies publicized their efforts to reduce how much power was being used, worked at lowering carbon footprints and started eliminating materials known to be harmful to the environment from their products. More recently, however, there’s been very little "green" hitting the headlines. So what’s happened? Has green IT died, or does it just feel like it?

Green IT: Hype vs. Reality

The summary is that the challenges of green IT have overtaken the hype and the publicizing. In previous articles (See: Think 3-D Printing Is Brand New? Think Again), we’ve talked about the hype cycle of adoption and how there’s a peak of expectation followed by a trough of disillusionment. For green IT, the promise of data centers using power more efficiently has also coincided with a surge in the use of more and more cloud services. And to provide bandwidth to customers, this is pushing many hosting organizations to have more power than needed on tap, conflicting with green initiatives. Security concerns over consolidating systems together have resulted in keeping them apart, increasing power demands. Add to these failures of high-profile "green" energy projects (remember Solyndra?) and it's easy to see how green tech has become a little, well, jaded (pun intended!).

Very often though, the trough of disillusionment forces organizations to rethink the underlying purpose and benefits of their original vision. They create the next generation of products based on what worked and what didn’t in the first. And it is these offerings that then progress the slope of enlightenment. If we look at the origins of green IT, it was all about IT and tech organizations aligning with a greater cultural shift of environmental awareness. The end consumer was becoming more concerned about environmental impact and organizations tapped into that interest with an angle that appealed. The "Tide Coldwater challenge" in 2005, HSBC’s "No Small Change" in 2008 and Toyota Prius in 2009 were popular and well-recognized advertising campaigns focused on lowering energy and reducing carbon emissions. And these worked because the green angle was seen as sincere by consumers and a long-lasting solution, not just surface-level branding.

Green IT vs. Cost & Quality

If we compare the above examples of green marketing to green IT, the key issues that arise are cost/benefit sustainability and keeping the green angle aligned with the changing focus of consumers. For example, consider what green IT means when it comes to continuing to find the most power-efficient means of providing greater capacity of "consumer demand" for cloud services. If green projects start to conflict with an organization's ability to be profitable, they become unsustainable, resulting in the green drive failing and adding to the perception that green IT is superficial.

So where is green IT succeeding? Key areas include:
  • Server virtualization and use of cloud. Consolidating services onto less physical hardware has the potential to provide greater scalability while lowering the comparable power costs on individual servers.

  • Right-sizing the number of physical office automation devices (printers, scanners, etc.) to reduce power and lower usage.

  • Reducing the use of consumables, most significantly paper, by finding ways not to print intermediate or "proof" items that will end up in final products.

  • Supporting telecommuting and meetings that include remote attendance, providing life-work balance and increased commitment and loyalty for employees with returns from greater productivity for the organization.
Some green drives bring other benefits too. For example, making landscaping changes where industrial buildings exist to reduce through traffic, increasing air quality and providing a more pleasant working environment. Carbon offsetting drives often see staff working in the environment, which creates a feel that is good for the employee as well as greater engagement and commitment, with the organization gaining positive publicity as a "green" community citizen as an added bonus.

Green IT's Focus Is the Key to Its Success

The key to maximizing the chances of success of a green IT project are to focus on what green benefits you really want to provide to the consumer. In other words, tap into that environmental awareness and create something that has genuine value and also becomes something that others want to be associated with (consumers, staff and competitors):

  • Be really specific about what "green IT" means for you and your organization. What primary "green" and other associated benefits do you want to achieve and why? How do these help your consumers, the community and the organization’s longevity and message? Make sure these are rooted in value and not just superficial branding.

  • Understand how sustainable your "green" project is and manage the associated risks and issues closely.

  • Measure the cost and benefits over time, so that adjustments can be made and there are more reasons to say "yes" to keep it going.
So long live green IT! It certainly isn't dead, maybe just a little misunderstood. We all recognize the different associated pieces of what it means to be green, sometimes under different guises. So, keep an eye out - more green IT may be re-emerging on the slope of enlightenment near you soon!