Green technology: hype or must-have?

An onslaught of "green" technology makes it hard to separate hype from reality.

A question for the eve of Earth Day: Has "green" technology been overhyped?

Scientists throughout the world who study global warming have concluded that drastic changes in human energy-consumption are necessary to avert a crisis of biblical proportions. Energy use in IT, like all other technology-intensive industries, thus has been put under a microscope. Computer hardware and software vendors, sensing a financial bonanza and opportunity to appear virtuous, have flooded the market with so-called green products.

It's enough to make some IT managers dismiss green technology altogether, but even those who are concerned about the environment and their own energy costs have a tough time separating product hype from reality. "There is a lot of hype, and it's hard to discern the difference between things that have been 'green-washed' and things that are really green IT," says Forrester analyst James Staten. Enterprise architect Samuel Ramos of the Oregon Department of Transportation says he thinks vendors like to "shine up" old products and sell them with a green tag. "It is deceiving," he says.

A vendor might be tempted to take an old product out of the closet, dust it off and claim it's the new green tool for the data center, Staten acknowledges. He thinks few vendors are guilty of going that far, however. Instead, he says, they develop one green product and call their entire portfolios green, even if the rest of the product line is inefficient.

IT vendors might be taking a cue from car companies that boast about selling one or two eco-friendly cars while selling millions of gas-guzzling SUVs. Dell, for example, has lots of ads talking about the greenness of their servers and PCs, Staten notes. While Dell's blade servers are very efficient, on the whole the company's "servers are not a whole lot different than other people's," he says. (Compare server products.)

It's not just Dell. Vendors, such as IBM and HP, are pushing green data-center service engagements that tend to push customers to standardizing on either IBM or HP equipment, rather than picking the best from multiple vendors, Staten says. Vendors say, "if you want to go green, you have to go with all my products," he says. "I wouldn't point fingers at one. I think everybody's guilty of this." Rather than looking to individual vendors, IT pros should turn to industry organizations like The Green Grid for less-biased information, he adds.

Several Network World readers either downplayed the importance of green technology or cast doubt on the scientific evidence behind global warming last year, when readers were asked to weigh in on the topic of green networking. 

"Green products are getting lost in the barrage of information that guys like me receive daily," one IT deputy director wrote. "When we do get to spend some cycles on planning the next data-center upgrade, green is certainly a consideration . . . right along with VM and iSCSI and, and, and."

Another reader -- senior consultant Tom Kozel of KiZAN Technologies -- wrote in calling himself a "born-again green." "Over the long term, green technology costs will become less expensive than the old way," he wrote. "In some cases, they already are cheaper. Resistance to greening computing and business in general is temporary and futile -- the accountants are coming."

The Oregon DOT's Ramos, for one, thinks Al Gore is simply wrong. "He's a funny guy," Ramos says of Gore, arguing that because world temperatures have fluctuated throughout history, the current global warming provides little, if anything to worry about.

Data centers consumed less than 1% of total U.S. electricity use in 2000, but that number will rise to at least 2.3% of all electricity use nationwide by 2010, according to the Uptime Institute. "I think [IT departments] have a big responsibility," says Derek Kober, director of the BPM Forum. The organization recently surveyed 150 IT pros and executives, and found that most IT pros are concerned about the IT department's impact on the environment -- or are at least interested in the economic benefits of being more energy-efficient.

In the survey, 86% said IT organizations have a "responsibility to substantially improve efficiency and green activities."

Only 41% have any specific green plans in place, however, the survey also found. "The biggest overarching message was that despite concern and despite increasing priorities for improving the environment and greening the data center, IT departments in general are pretty far behind," Kober says. "Three-quarters of respondents gave their organizations a 'C' grade or worse."

Some IT shops view green technology as too expensive upfront, but Kober noted that many businesses save money over the long run by consolidating systems and replacing old processors with newer, more energy-efficient models. Because of these long-term savings, economic benefit rather than environmental concern is the initial driver that gets IT departments thinking about efficiency, Kober says. 

Forrester's Staten shares this perception. "IT administrators define green as that rectangular dollar bill rather than something that is environmental," he says. "They don't really make a lot of decisions around what's environmentally responsible or not."

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