Living in a Material World was the Madonna mantra for the 80s. Everything was about money, buying things, and owning stuff. You could easily apply this to way that businesses first thought of their data. 

In-house IT departments wanted to own it, manage it and keep it away from prying eyes. Fast forward to the 2010s. Now it really is the Virtual World. The back office servers are going and hosting companies are becoming the IT department’s best friend.

So, now that outsourcing IT is officially a go-to business option, how has the notion of green IT played into this and has it moved higher up the financial agenda?

2011 has definitely been the year in which cloud computing and virtualisation really took off. As one prominent Gartner analyst said at a symposium recently, “The cloud is here and its utilisation is growing. Enough said.”

Staggering increases in the uptake of cloud services are predicted. According to one leading market research company, MarketsandMarkets, the global cloud computing market is projected to almost triple from $37.8 billion to $121.1 billion by 2015.

You only have to look at some of the recent data produced to see what a significant benefit this growth could have in terms of reducing overall carbon emissions. For instance, a recent study by the Carbon Disclosure Project showed that blue-chip companies in the UK plan to accelerate the adoption of cloud computing from 10% to almost 70% of their information technology by 2020.

The study claimed that these companies could realise £1.2 billion in energy savings and 9.2 million metric tons of CO2 savings annually by 2020, that’s equivalent to the annual emissions of over 4 million passenger vehicles. A US study by the same organisation predicted even greater annual energy savings of $12.3 billion if a similar uptake of the cloud took place by companies there.

There are several issues driving businesses to consider their environmental impact: brand reputation, cost reduction and potential punitive taxation and legislation.

Green IT and sustainability are no longer topics that are the preserve of the ‘tree hugger’ or ‘eco-warrior’ but rather a fundamental element in any organisation’s strategic business plan. IT has played a major role in this attitudinal shift.

The internet continues to drive the world’s economy and the demand for computing power keeps rising. The IT industry as a whole, from manufacturers to service providers, is reacting to this trend by working harder, smarter and more efficiently.

Businesses are more aware of their responsibilities to the environment however the key drivers for any business will always be revenue generation, increased efficiency and cost reduction. The trick is to ensure that green policy is built into a business’ strategy to ensure that it makes a visible and valuable contribution.

If a CIO can take an FD through a series of IT proposals that will deliver a demonstrable reduction in cost or improve business efficiency, which has an element of environmental benefit, then they are far more likely to gain buy-in.

If we are talking about greener IT in a wider sense then we have to include a whole range of elements. It is not simply a power issue. We should be considering every element of the IT supply chain. Where does your redundant kit end up? In the skip? 2011 saw many TV programs and column inches about the shameful practise of dumping IT equipment in landfill.

In 2012 we should make a huge effort to determine how we can better sweat our assets for longer and how we can re-deploy or find alternate uses for them once we have finished with them and are ready to upgrade.

We should also be considering data overload. Do we need to store everything? And returning to the power theme, we should be considering the use of renewable energy where possible. The IT industry should be using both its influence and purchasing power to demand that the energy providers deliver a constant and sustainable supply of renewables to our data centres.

Which brings us onto the subject of ‘Greenwash’ or ‘CloudWash’. One pleasing aspect of the cloud hype these past months has been the lack of dubious ‘green’ claims. We haven’t witnessed companies shouting “The cloud is green, come and join us!” and with good reason. Approximately 60 to 70% of data centre energy is still derived from fossil fuels.

In the past, many marketing claims about being green haven’t stood up to close scrutiny and I think the cloud providers have avoided this pitfall in the main. Ultimately, the best way to avoid greenwash is to present straightforward communications and messages which highlight the business benefits of the cloud.

What is clear is that businesses have an opportunity to use the cloud to benefit from both economies of scale and expertise. If we can remove 400 separate mini-server rooms into a cloud infrastructure, which is deployed in central purpose built data centres containing the latest cooling and energy saving technologies, we will have improved the overall environmental impact of all those disparate servers. It doesn’t make us green, but it does achieve overall greater efficiency. This is where cloud computing can help.

Five years ago hosting providers were seen as the enemy of the IT department. Most organisations didn’t understand what their IT departments did, they almost had a magical/mystical quality about them and whatever they said was acted upon.

If the IT department said the business needed 10 extra servers, then you needed them. But that has changed. IT is very much viewed as a business enabler now and there is a wider acceptance that virtually every technical service can be acquired, many at lower cost with greater capability, from third parties.

Today, as budgets are being pared back, the IT department has come to view the hosting provider as their friend. This is where we have a true cloud benefit. It gives you the flexibility to make an informed choice.

For example businesses such as charities which traditionally run seasonal campaigns, can use the cloud to cope with expected traffic demand at peak times rather than investing in expensive hardware which becomes redundant once the campaign is over, yet has to be left powered up and consuming energy.

These are the benefits that the cloud can bring to both an IT department and the environment, and no you don’t have to be wearing open toed sandals and hessian underwear to enjoy them!