Inefficient storage of data damages both the environment and retailers’ profits. Joanna Perry finds out how John Lewis is making its IT systems eco friendly

Many retailers have made significant strides with their green credentials in the past year. Plastic bags are out and locally sourced produce and eco-friendly stores are very much in. But what many corporate social responsibility directors at modern retailers have yet to cotton on to is just how bad IT is for the environment.

Environmental charity Global Action Plan published a report in December 2007 entitled An Inefficient Truth, highlighting the burden that information and communications technology (ICT) places on the environment. But it’s not all bad news. The report also demonstrates positive examples of green IT, including a major project that was undertaken last year by the John Lewis Partnership.

The survey concludes that ICT equipment is believed to be responsible for the same level of CO2 emissions worldwide as the aviation industry. In the UK, ICT is said to account for 10 per cent of the country’s total electricity consumption.

One of the biggest culprits is servers – especially the high-power servers that are housed in data centres where energy is also used to keep the environment cool and dry. However, it is possible to reduce the infrastructure that is needed in a data centre; and the fact that this can generate substantial cost savings too will be music to retailers’ ears.

A process known as virtualisation allows you to make one physical resource – such as a server – function as multiple logical resources. One server can replace multiple servers, even if they are running different applications.

John Lewis’s IT priorities in 2007 included issues of green computing, server infrastructure and server virtualisation. The scheme it put in place over the course of the year addressed all three.

The retailer runs two data centres – one at a site in Bracknell and a second at its offices in Victoria, central London. In particular, it had to think about issues over rackspace, floorspace and how much weight the floors at its Victoria data centre can support. John Lewis technical strategy manager Gary Hird explains: “If we had done nothing, we would potentially have had to set up another data centre.”

Although John Lewis was running out of space in its data centres, many of the servers that they housed were hardly being used. At the start of its IT project, the company was using a mere 8 per cent of the capacity of its commodity Intel servers. But the retailer has now been able to achieve virtualisation at about a 15:1 ratio – ie, there is one actual server for every 15 virtual ones. This means that the IT infrastructure is now running at about 70 per cent capacity.

The project began with a “proof of concept”, which took place between January and Easter 2007. The aim of the procedure was to project the results of widespread server virtualisation through a four-week trial. This showed that it was possible to achieve at least a 10:1 ratio of virtual to physical servers.

These findings encouraged John Lewis to embark on a wider trial, which saw 58 servers virtualised and which Hird describes as a big success. A mixture of older and newer servers – including ones that were being used for testing and those running live applications, as well as servers belonging to different teams – were chosen. This was to give the best indication of how the strategy would work were it to be extended.

Through the virtualisation of those 58 servers, John Lewis was able to save£100,000 on server purchases, 120 units of server rack space, 1.5 metric tonnes in weight and numerous network and storage area network (SAN) connections.

In the scheme’s first five months, the retailer saved£8,000 through a reduction in the amount of electricity and air conditioning needed to operate the virtualised infrastructure. Global Action Plan estimates that this equates to a 250-tonne reduction in CO2 emissions every year.

At this point, John Lewis put the virtualisation project on hold for three months while it evaluated the project. There was no question that the scheme had had the desired effect, however, the retailer wanted to make sure that it had all the processes pinned down to perfection before continuing. Once John Lewis was happy that this was the case, it could press ahead with the smooth roll-out of the virtualisation technology on a larger scale.

Over the summer, the retailer carried on with the mission to virtualise nearly all its servers. The exceptions were those machines running Citrix, Lotus Notes and SQL Server applications – John Lewis did not think that the VMware virtualisation system was right for them.

Hird says: “We have well above 150 servers virtualised. The changes have pleased the technology teams, as it has allowed them to get away from provisioning servers.”

The increased flexibility of quicker server installation is another of the project’s big successes. The time taken to set up a new server has been cut back from six weeks down to 15 minutes.

The virtualisation project has also raised awareness of green IT issues across the whole of the IT department. Hird says that John Lewis’s corporate social responsibility department has been a great help to the IT division. The retailer is now thinking about further green considerations across its IT operations. Hird adds: “We are keen to take our current practices and align them with best practice.”

Global Action Plan believes that, as well as reducing the infrastructure that is used to store data, companies also need to be more disciplined in the amount of information that they hold on to in the first place. As Hird puts it: “We need to think about what we are doing to address the war on terabytes.”

John Lewis is already taking its green IT message to the door of its suppliers and challenging them on their green credentials.

“We had a meeting early in the year and got 14 suppliers in a room to ask them what they were doing in their own businesses and with their products,” says Hird. For instance, John Lewis wanted to know what they were going to do to their software licensing models to make them fairer for the virtualised world.

Boxing clever

Other changes in the way the retailer operates its IT facilities are less to do with technology and more to do with common sense. For example, Hird adds that it is unnecessary to be sent boxes and boxes of user manuals with every software licence bought. All the company really needs is one disk so that it can then disseminate the information to users itself.

John Lewis is now considering a range of computing initiatives that could reduce the company’s carbon footprint. These include desktop virtualisation and managed printing. However, Hird says that he wants the retailer to go further still.

John Lewis is part of the Environmental IT Board created by Global Action Plan and sponsored by solutions provider Logicalis. It aims to drive adherence to green standards and best practice in the use of IT.

Hird says that, so far, it has been possible to recover the full cost of everything that John Lewis has done to reduce its carbon footprint. However, in the future retailers will have to embrace projects designed to help the environment, even if there is no quick financial payback, he adds.

Global Action Plan director Trewin Restorick believes that retailers can take the lead on implementing green schemes and says that this is happening in companies where the protection of the environment is championed by the board.

He says: “If you look at the retailers that are changing – such as Marks & Spencer and Wal-Mart – then there is leadership from the top.”

Restorick also believes that technology suppliers could be doing more and that retailers such as John Lewis are right to push them on this – but he would also like to see changes in legislation.

“There is a need for standards,” he explains. “If we understand what we should be heading towards, it makes the process a lot easier. For instance, when you go to a store to buy white goods, you get a simple energy rating on each product.” Restorick suggests that something similar should be available for IT hardware.

Retailers have been ahead of the Government in promoting carbon-reducing measures, such as minimising the use of plastic bags. It’s in everyone’s interests – including their own – that retailers choose to lead the way with their adoption of green IT too.