The green IT stars of 2010

InfoWorld's 2010 Green 15 Awards: Green-tech projects coupled with innovation and collaboration yield bountiful rewards

This year's crop of Green 15 winners demonstrates how organizations of all sizes are finding innovative ways to use information technology to achieve critical and often complementary environmental and business objectives. Increasingly, companies are moving beyond out-of-the-box products and siloed approaches to making IT itself more energy efficient. Rather, they're leveraging technology as part of a broader, holistic effort to create greener operations as a whole.

Green tech and gadgets for Earth Day

Telecom equipment manufacturer Ericsson, for example, has adopted a complex asset management system that the company and its global partners use to deliver parts, products, and repair services to customers in the most efficient way possible. The project promotes environmental objectives such as reuse, fuel efficiency, and material conservation -- and it saves Ericsson cash while boosting customer satisfaction.

[ See last year's list of Green 15 winners. | View a slideshow of green tech and gadgets for Earth Day. | Keep abreast of green IT news and tips by subscribing to InfoWorld's free weekly Green Tech newsletter. ]

Meanwhile, accounting company KPMG is finding ways to use IT to ingrain sustainable practices in day-to-day operations. For example, the company added a Green Travel Advisor to its internal portal that urges employees to use telepresence over air travel whenever practical. When it's not, the advisor directs them to environmentally responsible hotels.

Companies are also continuing to devise ways to enhance traditional green tech projects. In the past, data center greening projects tended to rely heavily on rolling out server virtualization, creating hot and cold aisles, and adjusting temperature and airflow. Green 15 winners including Dell and Intel have taken green data center initiatives a step further, employing homegrown techniques to drill down into how efficiently, or inefficiently, resources are being used and whether they're required at all.

Out of necessity or optimism, more organizations are thinking different in the name of thinking green. Syracuse University, for example, has done what few traditional data centers are willing to try: employing DC power in its new data center. The government of Andrha Pradesh in India embraced virtual desktops at 5,000 schools because it lacked the infrastructure for PCs. And a consortium of universities in Canada transformed a circular cement silo that formerly housed a particle accelerator into an innovatively designed cooling enclosure for a new supercomputer.

Since InfoWorld launched the Green 15 in 2008, project leaders have reiterated a shared sentiment time and again: Technology goes only so far in helping an organization achieve environmental objectives. Organizations in which executives work to promote green practices, engage employees, and drive collaboration and knowledge sharing among departments and business units will enjoy the greatest return on their green IT investments.

InfoWorld's 2010 Green 15 Award winners, in alphabetical order:

  • Aflac pushes for paperless practices, yields productivity gains
  • Andhra Pradesh overcomes resource limitations with virtual desktops
  • CLUMEQ transforms rundown particle accelerator into high-efficiency cooling enclosure
  • Dell spurs efficiency by pulling the plug on unnecessary apps
  • EPA's Energy Star for servers and data centers illuminates sustainable paths
  • Ericsson drives a greener supply chain
  • Intel pinpoints thousands of unproductive servers
  • Iron Mountain finds limestone a natural fit for data center efficiency
  • KPMG scores sky-high savings with telepresence
  • Palo Alto takes a unified approach to shattering carbon-cutting goals
  • Provider Enterprises steers fleet toward fuel savings
  • Raytheon's companywide green efforts reach Antarctica
  • Standard Bank enlists thin clients to avoid costly AC upgrade
  • State Street banks on sustainability
  • Syracuse University turns to DC power in constructing its Green Data Center

Aflac pushes for paperless practices, yields productivity gainsEmbracing electronic documents and print-management technology, the insurer sees faster policy processing and lower bills

Stacks of unclaimed printouts are a common site at organizations across the globe. At best, those pages get tossed into the nearest recycling bin, but even so, they represent a significant waste of natural resources and hard-earned company cash. As part of a companywide greening effort, insurance company Aflac instituted various technologies and policies to put the kibosh on print waste, resulting in a smaller environmental footprint, commendable cost reductions, and a surge in efficiency.

Starting last year, Aflac opted to invest only in energy-efficient network printers and has reduced printer count by 34 percent. Further, the IT department has set machines to default to two-sided printing, and the company embraced print management technology from Secureprint that requires users to confirm a print job at the printer before it will execute. Print jobs not retrieved within 24 hours are purged from the queue.

Aflac's paper-reduction efforts didn't end at the printer, either. The company's IT department has developed an online system called Smart App Next Generation (SNG) for enrolling and accessing policies electronically. "From a business perspective, this has helped Aflac reduce the need to handle the large amounts of paperwork usually associated with writing insurance policies. We are able to process the applications faster because there is no shuffling of paper between the agents and Aflac," said Pat Rayl, 2nd vice president of technology services at Aflac.

Agents have an added incentive to employ the environmentally friendlier approach to handling policies, Rayl noted: "Applications are approved faster through SNG. Therefore, the agents' commissions are paid faster."

The electronic delivery of policies, coupled with the electronic delivery of agents' statements, billing invoices, and corporate reports, has enabled Aflac to achieve an average of only 1.84 printed sheets of paper per active policy. There's also the ripple effect of fewer stacks of papers being sent to and fro via time consuming, eco-taxing snail mail.

Aflac's paper-reduction initiatives are a fraction of the company's overall sustainability initiatives. Other endeavors have included a data center makeover, such as server reduction through virtualization and improving cooling efficiency and air flow with techniques such as blanking panels, hot and cold aisles, and Koldlok around open floor areas. Additionally, the IT department has developed and promoted Aflac's Meeting Place, which features a suite of collaboration tools, including discussion groups, blogs, wikis, shared-document management, videoconferencing, and instant messaging. By promoting this approach to collaboration among offices spread out among its various offices and corporate campuses, the company saw a 43 percent increase in online meetings in 2009.

Rayl attributed the success of Aflac's multiple green endeavors to two key factors: sponsorship, promotion, and communication from upper management, as well as making the processes easy for employees to embrace. In terms of communication, Aflac's IT department maintains a Green IT page on Aflac Workplace that keeps company employees up to date on key metrics such as paper usage and server efficiency. "Probably the biggest lesson we have learned is that simply implementing green initiatives is not enough. Employees must be continually educated on the benefits of these programs and how they can contribute to making an environmental impact at work and at home," Rayl said.

Andhra Pradesh overcomes resource limitations with virtual desktopsWatt-sipping virtual PCs give students in India 5,000 school computer labs and a new start

For some organizations, embracing sustainability is something of a luxury. They have an ample supply of electricity, for example, and plenty of cash on hand, so they can gradually deploy waste-reducing projects that pay for themselves over time. For other organizations, however, sustainable efforts are driven by real, immediate needs.

Such was the case for the government of Andhra Pradesh in India, which needed to supply 1.8 million students across 5,000 public schools with access to state-of-the-art computing facilities. Standard desktop PCs wouldn't cut it, due to limited funding and limited electricity resources -- but virtual PCs proved a perfect alternative.

The school district chose a virtual desktop solution from NComputing. Students are equipped with their own monitor, keyboard, mouse, and NComputing X-series devices. (The devices come in kits that also include vSpace virtualization software and a PCI card.) The devices are connected to individual desktop computers, at a ratio of around 4 to 1, which perform the bulk of the processing work for the connected systems. In all, 40,000 NComputing devices were deployed, along with 10,000 full PCs provided by various OEMs, including HP and Acer.

The eco-magic of the NComputing access devices is that they require just a single watt of power to run, compared to a typical desktop that draws between 65 and 250 watts. Thus, the Andhra Pradesh government uses 90 percent less electricity than it would to power labs running traditional PCs. The virtual machines' watt-sipping nature was particularly significant given the limited infrastructure in the region.

"Certain locations where the installations occurred had very weak or no electricity infrastructure. For example, certain areas only received a few hours of electricity in the day. With a project of this scale, big generators would have been needed to support the setup of each lab in all of the 5,000 schools," said Stephen Dukker, CEO at NComputing.  "However, because of the low electricity consumption, the Andhra Pradesh government purchased smaller generators that are generally used in homes."

In terms of cost, the government estimates that taking the virtual desktop route conserved a whopping $20 million when factoring in savings on larger generators, fuel, electricity, and the like. From a green perspective, the virtual devices are also eco-friendlier than traditional PCs in that they last longer and contain fewer materials.

Thanks to the power of green technology, the students of Andhra Pradesh will be far better prepared for the future. "Earlier students did not even have an idea of how to switch on and off the computer," said Bhavani, a teacher at Zila Parishad School at Medak, India. "After four months, they are operating [the machines] themselves."

CLUMEQ transforms rundown particle accelerator into high-efficiency cooling enclosureHPC consortium discovers circular shape of concrete structure yields significant cooling efficiencies

The Université Laval in Quebec, Canada, had two problems. First, its campus was home to a run-down particle accelerator, constructed in the 1960s, that needed to be decommissioned. Second, the university and 11 of its fellow institutions, members of an HPC consortium, needed a place to construct a state-of-the-art supercomputer. With a little ingenuity -- and a devotion to embracing sustainable practices -- the group was able to transform the 36-foot-wide, 65-foot-high circular concrete silo into an effective cooling enclosure for its supercomputer.

Transforming the silo into a home for a new data center presented some unusual challenges for CLUMEQ (Consortium Laval, Université du Québec, McGill and Eastern Quebec). The final design concept comprised a topology where three levels of server racks are arranged along a circle, creating an inner hot-air cylindrical core and an outer ring-shaped cold-air plenum. The large floor cross-section of the cold-side plenum results in very low air velocity, almost no turbulence (thanks to the absence of corners), and thus uniform temperature and pressure, according to Marc Parizeau, professor at Université Laval and deputy director of CLUMEQ.

"Having a single annular-shaped cold aisle with a large cross-section and thus very low air velocity is probably close to ideal if one wants to air cool today's high-power density racks without using rear-door heat exchangers or other technologies that require bringing water near the servers," Parizeau said.

The main cooling system, located in the basement, pulls the hot air down from the center using energy-efficient variable drive fans. The hot air is cooled by forcing it through highly efficient, custom-designed walls of coils connected to the campus chilled water loop. Designers considered employing liquid cooling, but "simulations demonstrated that [benefits would be] marginal compared with our 120,000 CFM blowing capacity, and not worth the risk -- and costs -- of putting water above the servers."

Heat waste generated by the supercomputer is put to good reuse. During eight months of the year, it's transferred from the chilled water return to the campus hot-water loop to provide heating for the school, thus reducing energy bills.

The supercomputer itself was built by Sun using the company's Constellation blade system. It's composed of 7,680 Intel Nehalem cores with 24TB of RAM and 1 petabyte of high-performance, high-availability parallel storage. The server hardware itself is "quite energy efficient, but not significantly more than the competition," Parizeau said.

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