My work at Forrester is focused on helping strategists at IT suppliers (vendors) align their development, positioning, and messaging with the big trends and disruptions in the industry. Mobility, cloud computing, globalization … trends at that high altitude. Over the last 3 years or so, that has included sustainability as it has appeared on and risen higher on the strategy agenda of companies around the world.

 When I meet with strategists at tech suppliers large and small, we talk sustainability both in terms of how the companies are cleaning up their own practices and processes, and what they are doing to help their customers do the same. SAP’s “exemplar and enabler” language captures these parallel efforts nicely. But it’s still a limited perspective, one that I characterize as the IT industry playing defense. “We are improving our energy efficiency!” says the collective industry voice, as if trying to deflect public criticism of energy-hog data centers, or mountains of e-waste, or PCs left running 7 x 24. And yes, absolutely, the IT industry and its customers have more work to do to make IT infrastructure and processes less wasteful and more responsible.

But what about going on the offensive? There are bigger opportunities out there for IT suppliers; new markets in sustainability that will require more, not less, IT infrastructure. Opportunities that will cause IT’s share of global energy use to rise, not fall. If big IT suppliers are in a defensive crouch regarding sustainability, they risk missing these new markets. That’s why my visit to Intel a couple of weeks ago was so encouraging. I spent some time with Lorie Wigle and her eco-team, longstanding advocates of greener IT (Lorie is also the president of Climate Savers Computing) now turning their attention – and Intel’s attention – toward new market opportunities across the green energy landscape.  

First, the mind-blowing green IT statistic from Intel. It estimates that the 1 billion PCs in place worldwide in 2007 used 320 tera-watt-hours of electricity that year. Fast-forward to 2014, when the installed base will have doubled to 2 billion PCs; they will use ½ the energy (151 twh) while delivering 17 times the computing capability. So IT hardware is getting greener, fast.

But the more interesting part of the Intel story is the opportunity that it sees in providing computing capability to make energy generation, distribution, and consumption smarter and more efficient. Much of what I saw was under NDA, but the public pieces of the story are compelling:

  • High-performance computing for monitoring and control of smart grid systems;
  • Computing embedded throughout the grid infrastructure, from turbines to substations to transmission networks. A typical wind turbine, for example, contains 16 embedded microprocessors;
  • Smart microgrids for campuses, office parks, and residential neighborhoods;
  • Information systems for building managers and consumers to help them see, plan, and manage their electricity consumption.

Now whether these systems will be built on Intel chips is an open question; there are alternative processor architectures that will compete vigorously in these markets. But Intel is taking an offensive posture here; it has identified the new workloads and new processing requirements associated with smart grid and associated electricity/energy infrastructure and is marshalling its development, marketing, and partnership resources to get designed-in to those systems. And energy is just the one (huge) example market that I heard about; one can easily envision similar efforts in transportation, water, and the like.

My expectation is that this kind of offensive posture will become more common among IT suppliers in the coming months and years as the industry becomes more confident that it is getting its own house in order, and that it has vital contributions to make toward the greening of other sectors of the economy. Please chime in with your observations about IT suppliers moving from defense to offense (or not).