Top 12 green-IT users

'Green' is all the rage these days — and IT is no exception. Eco-friendly computing promises the twin win of saving money and the environment.

In this groundbreaking awards program, Computerworld US honors 12 user companies and another dozen vendors that are leading the way in green-IT. These green leaders are virtualizing, videoconferencing, turning down the cooling systems and turning off the lights. Top honors this year went to Highmark.

Highmark spent about US$45,000 each month on electricity in its old data center, a 24,000-square-foot, Tier 1 facility.

The company's new data center, built entirely of recycled building materials and certified as a leader in energy and environmental design by the US Green Building Council, is an 86,000-square-foot, Tier 3 facility with some 28,000 feet of raised flooring. The new data center is three times bigger than the old one, but its electricity costs are the same: US$45,000 per month.

Thanks to an array of energy- conserving technologies - including server virtualization and next-generation air- and equipment-cooling proc-esses - the medical insurer has not only kept its energy costs in check, but has also expanded operations and increased production since building the data center in 2005.

Now the goal is to decrease power usage companywide. For IT specifically, the target reduction is 5 per cent this year. Currently, the company's main data center uses about 700 kilowatts of electricity per month - enough to power 175 homes, says Mark Wood, director of data center infrastructure.

Highmark will pay US6.5 cents per kilowatt until 2010, when rate caps come off. But after that, "we're expecting a 20 per cent to 30 per cent increase in energy costs," says Wood. "Anything we can do now to reduce consumption will lower that."

Highmark began virtualizing servers last year, replacing about 100 of them with virtualized machines. IT also has migrated its Lotus Notes mail system from servers to an existing mainframe, using previously unused mainframe capacity to support e-mail at the 12,000-person company. IT will keep working on server virtualization this year, Wood says, but that's only a start. "Now we need to look at disk virtualization, and we need to go to de-duplication of data to save [disk storage] space," he adds.

Highmark has taken a unique approach to the challenge of cooling equipment in the data center, where it recirculates the air to keep temperatures down. "The air handlers on the floor push cold air under the raised floor. We then pull that air through the front door of our 19-inch [server] racks as part of our cooling system," Wood says. "We have monitors inside each rack that speed up or slow down fans based on the amount of heat it generates."

Another unique energy-conserving feature is a 380,000 litre water tank underneath the data center. Highmark uses the tank to collect rainwater that runs off the roof and then uses the water to cool the data center, which evaporates water at a rate of about 45 litres a day. "Everybody always thinks about energy, but water is just as valuable, because without water, you can't cool equipment," Wood notes.

Forrester Research analyst Christopher Mines says Highmark is "ahead of the pack in even looking at this dimension of the [cooling] problem. Virtually every company I talk to is focused on electricity usage" and maybe the resulting carbon emissions, he adds.

Highmark CIO Tom Tabor partially attributes Highmark's leadership status on the green-IT front to good timing. "We've had an opportunity to provide leadership as a result of building the data center at the right time," he says.

It's also fitting for IT to be the leader within the company. "The data center consumes more power than anywhere else in the organization," Tabor says. "Highmark is an organization that runs on information, and our data center is the guts of the organization."

Written by Julia King

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