Interview: Are Internet businesses going green?

We all know that we are increasing our carbon footprint every time we take a flight, drive our cars or leave our appliances on standby - but has it ever crossed your mind what you might be doing to the environment every time you carry out an internet search or do your shopping online?

Data centres - the massive banks of computers that power search engines such as Google or online shops such as Amazon - are coming are increasing scrutiny from green quarters as their energy demands grow.

The problem of these power-hungry data centres inspired the creation of the Think Eco-Logical initiative in the US, run by The BPM (Business Performance Management) Forum, data centre experts Rackable Systems, and computing firm Intel.

The scheme aims to educate companies about the need to combine environmental concerns (that's the 'Eco' bit) with rational business management (this is where 'Logical' comes in).

The initiative has now released its first major report investigating the behaviour of companies using data centres to see just how much work they are doing so far to limit their environmental impact (see related story).

Following the launch of the report, edie spoke to Derek Kober, programme director of the BPM Forum, and Jason Coari, senior marketing manager of Rackable Systems, to find out more about Think Eco-Logical, the results of the report, and what they believe should happen next.

EDIE: What prompted the creation of the Think Eco-Logical initiative?

DEREK: The Think Eco-Logical programme is something we [the BPM Forum] have been working with Rackable [Systems] and Intel on. The genesis of this programme was based on a belief that companies need guidance, they need best practice and they need information.

JASON: Data centres across the US take up about 2% of the entire electricity output of the country. Statistics show that demand is not decreasing - it's only going to be increasing. When demand continues to grow, data centres are going to grow. There's a real business reason for a lot of these companies to adopt more Think Eco-Logical practices.

EDIE: So what is Think Eco-Logical working on at the moment?

DEREK: We are looking at two industries right now - one of which is Internet and e-Commerce-related businesses. We surveyed 275 professionals in that broad category. We also talked to a set of executives on the corporate side and that's towards the back of the report.

We found there is increased awareness of the need and the pressures to make environmental changes. But Internet and e-Commerce companies are not very advanced at pushing the ecological side. Less than a quarter say their companies are adopting Think Eco-Logical practices in a big way.

The message here is that I think there's a need for education - greater awareness of the benefits that can be achieved. I think that some companies like Amazon, Google and Yahoo to a certain extent they have announced environmental efficiencies, but overall we feel like the industry has a long way to go.

JASON: I think this survey has really shed some interesting light which has shown there are certainly leadership obstacles. There's also a lack of ownership in companies and probably a bit of a lack of understanding with where these folks are today and how much can be gained by implementing new technologies in the data centres. The programme has done a great job on shedding light on what some of the obstacles are.

One of the challenges - and I think this programme can really help with it - is just the awareness and realising that there are real business benefits with this kind of agenda.

EDIE: What will be the consequences of data centres continuing with business as usual?

JASON: I think what will happen - and we have already started to see a little bit of this - is that people are really starting to build their data centres where the power is. For example Google have built a data centre right next to a hydroelectric dam.

I think what we will see is more relocation along these lines, but there's also going to need to be more change within the data centres. I think companies will find a way, but I think instead of this being a choice of whether we upgrade technology, they will have to upgrade.

DEREK: If we look at some of the statistics that analysts are saying, for example Gartner says nearly 50% of data centres will have trouble finding electricity to power their needs. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) says power failures over the next few years will affect more than 90% of data centre operations.

Clearly there's an issue with the power availability on the grid. If demand keeps increasing, we have got some real issues. Data centres need to be more efficient with the power they are using.

EDIE: Do you think the public also need to be made more aware of how much energy their internet shopping uses?

JASON: I think there's certainly more education that does need to happen within the public. But what I see is really lacking if we look at the possible drivers, we have got the individuals, the inventors of the technology, the public and the final one - and a piece that has been somewhat slow especially here in the US, and hopefully that will change now with the new administration - is the Government. There need to be incentives from Government.

DEREK: Consumers need something tangible to hang their hat on. Folks like Amazon have done a lot to reduce packaging and that's something that consumers can see. But it's a bit tougher for someone buying a book online to get their head around how many kilowatt hours are being used. We need some kind of benchmarking system.

There needs to be some more awareness among the general population about the power usage. The challenge is how to do you put that in simple terms?

EDIE: What do you hope will be the impact of this report?

DEREK: From the BPM Forum's viewpoint, we hope the awareness that we need to move forward will come out of this. I would like to see that a year from now, if we do this again, the grades will be better. We think that it's realistic that within a year or two, significant change can happen.

And the economy - even though it's challenging because budgets are tight - is really another incentive for the business side that you need to be more efficient.

Kate Martin

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