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Do We Have to Save Energy Costs?

OK, I'll just 'fess up to this one: When we designed the VoiceCon San Francisco tutorials on "Cutting the Corporate Energy Bill," we didn't think a gallon of gas would ever see $2.50 again, or that it'd wind up being cheaper for me to fly from Chicago to the West Coast in November than it was to fly to New York in September. Of course, on the other hand, when we designed those sessions, we didn't imagine that file photos of Depression-era bread lines would become a staple of the stock-image industry.So in the current economic crisis, saving money is as relevant as ever. But has the notion of looking for savings within the energy bill lost some of its urgency?

In the early days of the financial crisis, Tom Nolle wrote: "This year, 39% of CIOs say that their primary goal is productivity enhancement, and my numbers say that will rise to 43% in 2009 and to 46% in 2010. It beats out 'modernization' or 'sales increases' or even 'cost reduction' by an increasing margin."

By that logic, Unified Communications--or maybe Communications-Enabled Business Process, if you're slicing your buzzwords thin--should always be the focus for IT decision-makers. The challenge with that, however, is that cost reductions are predictable (assuming your projections are accurate and you execute your deployment in accordance with those projections); productivity enhancements can be less certain.

So cost reduction will remain important. The question is whether energy costs are a productive target for cost reduction efforts, given how volatile these costs have turned out to be: Should you invest significant dollars in energy-saving technology if the cost of energy might continue to fall in the short or even medium term?

I think energy efficiency still makes sense because even if prices fluctuate, your total energy consumption for IT is likely to be on an unbroken upward trend (leaving out, of course, the impact if you wind up closing facilities due to larger economic factors). Every new IP phone you put in place will increase your demand for Power over Ethernet, and every Power over Ethernet switch you put into a wiring closet will increase your need to cool that closet, potentially with air conditioning systems that will, in turn, suck more power. Virtualization and datacenter consolidation strategies may be one way to reduce powering needs, but those strategies will be adopted in a much larger context than just energy cost savings.

Meanwhile, the other half of our VoiceCon energy costs tutorial will deal with the ways in which technology can drive energy conservation by enabling remote work/collaboration. Like virtualization, remote work is a larger trend that will continue to happen irrespective of its implications for energy consumption. It's more likely to be driven by a grassroots push for energy conservation--i.e., employees who don't want to commute--than it will occur via top-down fiat.

Remote work isn't just attractive here in the U.S., either. At our recent VoiceCon Amsterdam event, Robert Zeitz, an IT executive with Hapag-Lloyd cruise line, described how his company is using the Mitel-Sun Ray thin client approach, and having implemented this system in its headquarters, is now looking to integrate it in a teleworker solution for home-based workers.

Finally, advocates of telepresence have consistently said that the real appeal of the high-end video technology wasn't travel avoidance, but rather better collaboration. Again, the larger economic forces may now be driving travel avoidance, for reasons that have nothing to do with energy costs specifically. And it's probably true that telepresence's main benefit is in enabling international collaboration, where travel isn't just expensive but time-consuming; telepresence lets you strengthen international relationships by having more face-time with people you realistically just wouldn't get to meet with as often.

So I guess the bottom line is that even if energy costs have been coming down, enterprise communications departments might be well advised to behave as if they weren't.