Behind the News: IBM's Big Green Innovations

Behind the News: IBM's Big Green Innovations

This month's announcement that IBM would spend $1 billion a year to make data centers greener was big news in IT circles. But Big Green Innovations covers quite a bit more than data centers, so GreenerComputing's managing editor, Matthew Wheeland, sat down with Peter Williams, Big Green's Chief Technology Officer, to learn more.

Matthew Wheeland: I know that Big Green Innovations covers a bunch of different territory, but in terms of the most IT-related subject to start with, tell me a little bit about the Big Green project that IBM announced earlier this month?

Peter Williams: Sure. That was basically about a whole series of offerings that we have now, and that are also being developed around reducing the energy consumption and the carbon footprint of data centers. Those offerings include both the infrastructure of the data centers themselves, and also the things you can do around server virtualization, server design and so on as well, that make the servers themselves more efficient to run.

MW: In recent weeks it seems like a lot of big IT industry and web companies have come out with large-scope environmental announcements: Yahoo just launched Yahoo!Green, Apple is promoting its green practices, HP just launched a big climate initiative, and even News Corp. is going to go carbon-neutral. Does it seem like there's a growing realization that computers can save the planet, or is there something else behind it?

PW: Well, at the level we've just been discussing, computers are part of the problem, not part of the answer. But if you look at some of the things that companies are doing, and I'll just take IBM as an example, an awful lot of the technologies and the approaches that are being applied now to try to improve sustainability require significant computational input: designing photovoltaic cells, molecular design of ligands to remove pollution, atmospheric modeling, weather and climate modeling, hydrological modeling -- all of those are very, very computer-power-intensive applications.

And that is one area where IBM comes in. We see that we have a role to play there, both in selling hardware and software, and in helping people use it.

MW: IBM recently announced a collaboration with The Nature Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership, and some of the projects of Big Green Innovations definitely fall under the idea that IT can be part of the solution and not just part of the problem. How do these projects fit into that?

PW: Well, with IBM's involvement in the Great Rivers Partnership, one of the things we'll help to do is assemble a very large database of information about the total ecosystem represented by each river. We are creating and maintaining that database. It will be then a resource for the countries involved and the communities that live along each river in the project, so that they can plot the implications of their actions on the overall ecosystem of the river itself. That's one example.

Others that we're looking to create, for example, are around integrating very large networks of sensors that you need to manage water infrastructure more effectively, and manage our transmission and distribution infrastructures more effectively. These sensors -- you've heard of the Smart Grid, of course -- but they also include electrical current and power sensors; in the water arena, they include sensors for water quality, quantity, climate and atmospheric sensing.

All of those have to be integrated, for two reasons: One, you're trying to allow decisions to be taken automatically at the edge of the network so that, in the case of water, you get water readings of a certain level maybe that needs -- requires a pump to turn on or a sluice gate to open or whatever it might be.

That's the first reason. The second reason is you then want to be able to aggregate a picture in one place, visualize that picture, to allow management decisions to be taken.

MW: And how does IBM plan to integrate this with your clients' current businesses?

PW: Let's take a real-live example: You're a water company; you have reservoirs; you need to model the impact of runoff on the quality of the water in those reservoirs. And you want to be able to assess the kind of climate risk -- for example, generating major storms -- that would drive runoff up critical levels. Similarly, you might want to assess the climate risk or the impact of climate events on your electricity grid. Those are some of the things that we're looking to support.

The overall premise being that you get more water or more electricity out, relative to the amount that you put in. That's the green aspect to it. It's a way of enabling water to be conserved and used more efficiently, and it's enabling energy to be conserved and used more efficiently.

MW: Another topic that comes up repeatedly when I look into Big Green is green operations, greening the supply chain -- tell me a little bit about how you're addressing that.

PW: As you may or may not know, IBM has an enormous consulting division -- we do everything from strategy to process to tech support and beyond. We also have something that we call sustainable facilities management, which is helping companies by outsourcing contracts while making sure that the contractor behaves in a sustainable way. And that's another aspect of it entirely, looking at the sustainability of our outsourcing activities.

But we are looking basically to adapt two aspects of our consulting business to Big Green. The first is a very sophisticated carbon model that would allow a business to answer questions like, "I want to take a product off the market next year because it's obsolete; what kind of carbon credit will I generate?" Or, "I have a just-in-time inventory paradigm -- how can I improve the carbon footprint of my inventory replenishment activities without damaging sustainability, or stock turn, or working capital, or service levels?" These kinds of complex questions are what we're going to be able to help companies address.

The implicit theme behind it is that we're trying to get businesses to consider carbon as one of the many dimensions of a routinely balanced day-to-day -- cost, time availability, quality, etc., rather than having greenness as some sort of afterthought. You know, the thinking that, "yeah, we've optimized our supply chain, oh, yeah, and we'd better make it green as well."

What we're trying to do is get away from that so that green is a sustainability aspect, and by that we mean carbon consumption in the first instance; it is considered on exactly the same basis as any other factor.

And clearly, as you have carbon trading coming into the picture, businesses are going to be using the decisions they make to drive carbon trading, whether selling or buying of carbon instruments, on the basis of how they've got their operations performed and tuned.

The second aspect, then, is a methodology that we're planning to create to enable businesses to improve their business processes and optimize their carbon footprints at the same time. And the unspoken assumption behind that is, firstly, that the kind of habit of mind that you need to analyze a business process for carbon is pretty much the same as you need to analyze a process for cost, time, waste, rework, etc.

In addition, if you are looking at the carbon consumption of a process and you're trying to improve that, you'll probably catalyze other beneficial process changes at the same time. And that's something that obviously we're very keen to encourage; it improves the business case for reducing your carbon footprint, and that's something that we're going to be working very hard to enable on behalf of our client.

Put it this way: If you make some sustainability improvement and it turns out to have a net cost, the sustainability improvement would, so to speak, get the blame for the cost. If you make some sustainability improvement and it also generates some other benefit, it would seem to be rational and equitable to make sure that the sustainability improvement gets the benefit from that, in ROI terms, and that's what we're trying to enable.

MW: So you're thinking in terms of a reinforcing feedback loop where, if this sustainability improvement is generating revenue, then they're going to sink that money into further funding that sustainability improvement?

PW: Well, I can't speak for how they reinvest the benefit that they've generated. But what I can say is that if you can show these additional sources of ROI are likely to arise, you're going to make it a more attractive proposition for the business to undertake.

MW: Obviously IBM has the immense computing capabilities behind it to undertake these projects, but you're not the only company that can say that; so why is IBM doing this? What makes IBM the right company for the job?

PW: Yes, of course other companies have computing capabilities, but I'd venture to suggest that none of them have gotten to quite the depth and degree that we have. Equally important, we can combine the computing capabilities with our service delivery and with our software products, and we believe that we can create a number of absolutely unique propositions in the water, energy management, green supply chain, and computational modeling areas.

MW: And the last question that I have is, if this is just the beginning for Big Green Innovations, can you tell me anything about what's on the radar for future projects?

PW: We're at the stage now, it's a bit like crossing a chasm, where Jeffrey Moore was saying, you know, pick the things that you can do really well right now and concentrate like hell on them. And that's what we're doing.

But in the future, topics that I can well see us undertaking might be carbon trading, or traffic and atmospheric pollution. I mean, they're not subjects we're specifically focusing on right now, but we're increasingly getting people raising them with us, so I could easily see them coming into the portfolio.

I think the ultimate success measure, though, if you're asking me to see how we want it to develop, would be where it's no longer remarkable to have services labeled Big Green, because they're so absolutely mainstream. And you know, that is clearly a few years away, but that has to be the situation that we're trying to move towards.