Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | March 25, 2010

IT for Green and Green for IT

What exactly is green IT. Does it even matter? With increasing pressures and urgency to deliver and use technology in a sustainable manner, managers have started becoming curious about IT related sustainability. They are beginning to examine if it is really important to have green IT and to what extent green IT has economic impacts. Is green IT expensive to procure and use? So expensive that corporate IT budgets may not allow for adequate funding? The study of sustainability or greenness in the context of Information Systems can be approached from two broad directions – “Green for IT” and “IT for Green”.

“Green for IT” means that companies have in place practices, processes and resources that are required for making their use of IT sustainable. The implication being that the firm establishes processes and technologies which will make the IT that it uses – servers, PC’s, printers, data centers, networks and applications – energy efficient and made of environmentally friendly components. To accomplish the goal of using environmentally friendly IT, a number of actions are desirable. Technology procurement for instance should be guided by procurement policies specifying green standards for selecting and procuring hardware. Or, use of virtualization should  ensure minimal use of processing and storage capacity. Or, energy efficient cooling and lighting in data centers can lead to increased sustainability though lower heating, cooling requirements and energy consumption. The firm should have explicit policies with regard to procurement and use of IT,  that result in minimal cooling, emissions, and environmental impacts. There are a number of ways that this can be done, two of which are particularly salient. The first is by specifying and designing practices and routines that pertain to sustainable IT, so that the firm has a high “readiness” for green IT. Molla (2009) and Sayeed (2008) for instance mention various practices in a firm that indicate how well-prepared it is to adopt and implement green information technologies. These range from general concern for the environmental impacts of IT and presence of related policies, to more specific activities such as IT vendor audits and selection based on environmental criterion, environment-friendly ways for hardware recycling, measuring IT related emissions and energy consumption, implementing virtualization, data center greening and earmarked budgets and roles for sustainability initiatives. The second is by learning from vendors about sustainable practices in all stages of the IT services value chain. Many IT services vendors operate on a global scale and scope, have access to state of the art technical developments in IT sustainability and can influence their adoption  by client firms. They can also transfer such knowledge to customers. The IT services value chain has a number of stages – design, development, production, delivery and disposal. In introducing sustainable practices in each of these stages, for instance, by offering environmentally friendly recycling in the disposal or building energy efficient data centers in the delivery stage, they can create green services for their clients.

“IT for Green” means that firms use applications and computer-controlled hardware that lets them analyze environmental impacts of their operations. Many firms, irrespective of whether or not they are heavy users of IT, want to understand the environmental impact of their operations. They want to know how much energy they consume, what their green house emissions are, which of their processes contribute to pollution etc. “Environmental Management Systems” – EMS- are applications that record and provide raw metrics as well as consolidated and analyzed environmental parameters against which firms can measure, benchmark and improve sustainability in their operations. These software are usually industry specific. Utility companies for instance focus on tracking emissions data from their coal burning processes or energy efficiency data from their transmission systems. Airline companies would be interested in carbon emissions from jet fuel from their aviation processes. Consulting firms, where employees travel extensively would look to reduce travel-related environmental impacts through the use of EMS. Retailers like Wal-Mart, with international supply chains that span vendors and logistics across many continents, are beginning to track carbon emission and energy consumption due to their complex shipment and logistics related processes.  Cisco systems for instance, has developed a software that measures and monitors energy consumption of networked devices such as routers and switches, that would be useful to phone and data connectivity services providers.Thus, the particular process to which data is applied for introducing sustainability and the associated sustainability metrics would depend on the industry and the firm.

Green IT thinking is emerging and nascent. IT is replacing many of our commercial and social physical processes. Instead of going to the mall, we shop online, instead of traveling we do video conferencing. So as we weave more and more IT into the workflows at home and work, we are also saddling ourselves with the responsibility of exploring whether the computers, screens and networks we so blithely use are appropriately designed and configured for sustainability. Indeed, corporate data centers account for more than 60% of energy consumption in many banks. Clearly then, there is scope for being environmentally responsible in firms’ use of IT. At the same time, whether it is “Green for IT” or “IT for Green”, green IT is coslty. Energy certified hardware equipment may be more expensive, tracking energy metrics and integrating the data with process-related metrics would require building and implementing applications and systems as complicated as any other decision support system that may be around and would include high technical and institutional costs. Companies therefore need to appropriately focus and target their green IT investments, depending on whether having green IT yields them greater sustainability benefits (this maybe true for companies that use IT heavily) or whether building appropriate EMS gives them data that can be gainfully used. Green IT, therefore, is to be seen in the larger context of a corporation’s goals for sustainability.

References:

IT and Eco-Sustainability: Developing and Validating a Green IT Readiness Model,” Alemayehu Molla, Vanessa Cooper, Siddhi  Pittayachawan, Proceedings of the International Conference on Information Systems, Phoenix, AZ, 2009.

“Implementation of Green IT: Implications for a Dynamic Resource”,  Lutfus Sayeed and Sam Gill, Proceedings of  Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, CA, 2008

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