Green IT Careers: Trends, Technology, and Specialties

Green IT is emerging as a hot information technology specialty. It’s not necessarily because corporations have suddenly become enlightened about carbon footprints and the battle against climate change, but rather for a far more prosaic reason: Green IT saves money. Building and maintaining large, power-hungry, underutilized data centers is expensive. IT experts who can design smaller and leaner infrastructures will find themselves in high demand.

What is green IT exactly? While there’s no single definition, Simon Mingay, the author of the Gartner report Green IT: The New Industry Shock Wave, defines it as, "optimal use of information and communication technology for managing the environmental sustainability of enterprise operations and the supply chain, as well as that of its products, services, and resources, throughout their life cycles." By using more efficient "eco-friendly" technology and techniques, enterprises also save money, thereby addressing two important issues at once.

If green IT came to prominence for environmental reasons, it got more attention when oil climbed above $100 a barrel and energy expenses were on the top of everyone’s minds. When oil prices fell and the economy collapsed, the new impetus was to increase corporate efficiency and address total cost of ownership. Green IT does it all, and it’s catching on quickly. Forrester Research projects the $500 million spent on green IT services in 2008 will grow to $4.8 billion by 2013 as old hardware is replaced, new data centers are designed, and corporations brace themselves for the inevitable arrival of new rules and regulations about emissions and energy use. A survey from Deloitte and CFO Research shows that by the end of 2009, as many as two-thirds of all large companies may have put in place strategies for making their tech departments more environmentally and energy friendly.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. data centers and standalone servers consume 1.5 percent of the country’s total electricity supply, and are on course to nearly double their use of power by 2012. If that happens, they’d require the equivalent of 10 massive new power plants, and by 2020 would indirectly generate more greenhouse gases than all the world’s airliners combined.

Helping make IT go more green is a big opportunity for job seekers who are looking to specialize in an area that’s guaranteed to grow. Companies are eager to streamline and optimize their infrastructures in ways that promise to lower their energy use, lower their overall equipment costs, perhaps save money on real estate and, yes, even cut down on personnel. Can they do all that and still increase their overall use of technology? A green IT expert can certainly help. Anyone who can deploy energy-efficient computers, servers, and peripherals, or create the software and services aimed at making systems run better, will be in demand.

Virtualization

For some IT experts, green IT is synonymous with virtualization, the science of squeezing more performance out of underutilized servers by creating "virtual machines" inside them that can handle multiple tasks simultaneously. A survey by McKinsey found that among a total of 458 servers at four production data centers, 32 percent (146 in all) were running at or below 3 percent peak and average utilization. That is no way to run a data center.

Do virtualization the right way, and data centers can cut the number of installed servers, save on space and cooling costs, and cut back on the labor needed to keep multiple servers up and running. IBM experts say even a first try at virtualization can cut energy consumption by an average of 23 percent. The cost of implementing it is paid back in under two years. And evidence from the trenches shows that it works. Agricultural giant Monsanto, for example, uses just 16 physical servers to run 350 virtual servers. The United States Postal Service went from 3,000 servers down to 2,000. Its server utilization rates have risen from a low of 30 percent to an average of 50 to 60 percent. Citigroup plans to go from 52 separate data centers as of 2005 to just 14 by 2010. That¿s less hardware, less energy, and less real estate, all of which add up to savings – not to mention a healthier environment.

Classes and certifications in all aspects of virtualization are available, with many students gravitating toward learning the ins and outs of VMware, the leading virtualization software platform. Microsoft also has its own set of virtualization solutions that students can study for certification.

Data Center Management

Another emerging green IT specialty is data center design, management and maintenance. The energy consumed by data centers goes mainly to servers and cooling systems, so the more crowded a data center gets, the more energy is consumed. One Gartner survey found almost 70 percent of data centers are constrained for power, cooling, and space, meaning they need to be redesigned and redeployed. Energy-efficient servers run cooler and demand less cooling. Still, 90 percent of companies with large data centers expect to add more power and cooling within the next two years, unless, of course, an expert can come in and show them how to do things differently and better. With new server and intelligent cooling options, an average 20,000 square foot data center should be able to cut its energy consumption by 40 percent, a potentially huge savings, and one that may also reduce carbon emissions by almost 7,000 tons per year.

Alternative Energy

Anyone interested in green IT should study up on the types of alternative energy sources that have made news during the past few years. Many of the nation¿s largest data centers have implemented some sort of solar collection on their vast roofs. Wind power continues to be explored even though falling oil prices and the global recession have knocked it out of the headlines. And don’t forget above waves: In 2007, Google filed a patent for a floating data center that would incorporate wave energy converters that use the motion of ocean surface waves to create electricity. Google says 40 such units could create 40 megawatts of power, and the data center would have no real estate costs or property taxes. That’s green IT thinking at its most inventive.

Business Process Management

Making the transition to a more paperless workflow and culture is one part of total business process management (BPM), the study of improving corporate efficiencies from top to bottom. IT plays a huge role by consulting on advanced networking technologies, including pay-as-you-go networked services designed to acquire and store electronic documents while keeping them secure but readily accessible in off-site locations. This is one way green IT can improve not just the bottom line but also the very nature of day-to-day business operations. Green IT can encourage top management to find ways to redeploy employees whose job it is to literally "push paper."

Cloud Computing

At a time when virtually every organization is looking for innovative ways to "do more with less," one way to gain efficiency is to implement an Internet-based utility computing mode, in which the precise amount of networked resources needed at any given moment are provided by a trusted third party. You use only the infrastructure you need but always have the opportunity to adjust it on the fly, which allows companies to reduce costs for internal hardware, software and IT services while maintaining a state-of-the-art networking environment.

Green Product Procurement

Today, hardware manufacturers are taking more responsibility for the entire lifecycles of their products – from factory to recycling. At the same time, government agencies are demanding all new purchases be environmentally friendly as defined by such standards as Energy Star or EPEAT, which today has more than 30 participating manufacturers registering more than 1,000 eco-friendlier desktops, laptops, and monitors. Consulting on the proper purchase, deployment, decommission, and recycling of hardware has become a specialty of its own.

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