When you think of Italy (if you're like me) you probably think of wine; and when you think of wine you may think about sustainability (I know I certainly do), but you probably don't think about high technology.

I recently learned about a groundbreaking winery in Italy that is using some of the most forward-thinking technology -- as well as some well established green IT tools -- to acheive its green goals. Monte Vibiano, a 1,000-acre farm in Umbria that grows grapes, olives and wheat, last October began overhauling its processes with the goal of becoming the world's first carbon-neutral winery.

There is of course no shortage of green wineries, including some really innovative and holistically thinking approaches to sustainability, but what caught my eye about Monte Vibiano's efforts was their focus on IT as a tool to achieve their goals.
Il Castello di Monte Vibiano. Photo courtesy of Monte Vibiano.

"We are trying to apply new technology to one of the oldest activities in the world," Alesssandro Giannoni, Monte Vibiano's chief information officer, explained to me. "There are not a lot of data available for the company; there is data, but it's written on paper or the farmer knows all the information."

Overcoming the ages-old divide between working in the fields and working at a database was one of three phases of Monte Vibiano's 360° green project. Developed by Lorenzo Fasola Bologna, the CEO of Monte Vibiano, and launched in October 2008, 360° green consists of a virtualization project, a unified communications project, and a radical "field intelligence" project, which aims to put sensors on every olive tree at Monte Vibiano in order to blend the most perfect olive oils.

In order to achieve these goals, Fasola Bologna extended a partnership already under way with Microsoft.
Lorenzo Fasola Bologna at the event unveiling the 360° green project. Photo courtesy of Monte Vibiano.

"Why Microsoft and Monte Vibiano?" he asked, more or less rhetorically. "The answer is not about the size of the company, but it's all about the size of your vision. This is exactly the mentality of Microsoft: To help little companies like us, because if many little companies together they can make a lot of change."

Green IT Basics: Virtualization and Unified Communications

The first step of the 360° green took shape when Monte Vibiano worked to reduce the energy consumed by their IT needs. Using Microsoft's Hypervisor virtualization platform, Monte Vibiano was able to cut the number of servers in use by half, and reduce the energy used by the remaining servers by 38 percent.

The second stage of the project involved cutting their travel-related emissions and costs; even though Monte Vibiano is a small company, the nature of their work means plenty of travel for meetings and tastings with customers. (One part of Monte Vibiano's business involves selling high-end wine and olive oil for first-class meals on airlines.)

But by adopting a unified communications project, and conducting more meetings over the internet rather than face-to-face, Matteo Mille, Microsoft's server and tools business group lead in Italy, said Monte Vibiano has cut its travel costs by €25,000 (US$35,500) since the project began.
Part of Monte Vibiano's solar system. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

Going Deeper with Green IT

Beyond these more tried-and-true IT practices, Monte Vibiano is working to integrate analytics and data gathering through every element of the business. The company has installed a photovoltaic solar system that will, by the end of 2009, supply all the company's energy needs. And Mille said that Monte Vibiano is using their IT infrastructure to track peaks of energy generation and energy consumption in their facilities, and analyzing that data for maximum efficiency.

But the third phase of the 360° green project is taking green IT to unprecendented depths: Giannoni and Fasola Bologna are in the midst of tagging every single olive tree with radio frequency ID (RFID) tags to provide highly granular data on how sunlight, water and human intervention shape the final product from each of those plants.

RFIDs, which are more commonly seen as tools for tracking shipping pallets or tracking products, will be used in Monte Vibiano's "field intelligence" project to track everything from how often the trees are watered or pruned to when the olives get harvested.

By gathering this level of data, Monte Vibiano will be able to track how their production practices affect the output of the olives, and will help
"The RFID is very important because in the oil, like in the grapes, the phenolic parts are changing every day," Fasola Bologna explained. "The workers do the chemical tests on each plant, so every day they can choose which trees they'll pick from."

"This was innovating, not so much from an IT perspective but from a process perspective," Matteo Mille said. "[Monte Vibiano] understood and agreed that grabbing information from the different phases of production would enable them to create a sort of intelligence that could enable them to change the process of mixing the oil by tracking the sources of the different olive plants and understand the quality of the different plants and fields."
Fasola Bologna and Larry Orecklin, general manager for virtualisation at Microsoft. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.
fasola orecklin

Big Changes Start in Small(er) Places

Monte Vibiano is obviously a pioneering kind of green business, one that's still entirely too rare anywhere in the world. From their comprehensive solar power system to their use of telepresence to their new electric vehicle charging station (and a plan to offer bikes to all employees who want to bike to work), the winery has a grand green vision.

But innovation has to start somewhere, and while Mille said that large telecom companies and banks that he's interacted with on green IT projects have all been certain their existing processes were the best way to get things done, smaller firms like Monte Vibiano are both open to new ideas and pushing Microsoft to explore new ways of making business processes more efficient and effective.

Francois Ajenstat, Microsoft's director of environmental sustainability, explained that this project showed how these partnerships can engage Microsoft and its customers to have a meaningful environmental impact.

"Monte Vibiano is a great example of how it all comes together, not just to reduce IT's consumption, but to also make operations more effective, and delivering more productivity and value to the customers, all while achieving sustainability goals."