Why General Motors Went Green (But Not Cloud)

GM's new data center lands LEED certification as the automaker continues insourcing IT operations.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

September 19, 2013

4 Min Read

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General Motors is in the midst of shutting down 23 data centers worldwide and moving its computing into two modern data centers that the company is building in Michigan. The choices GM makes along the way are interesting for anyone curious about the future of large-scale business computing.

One decision GM made is to go green. This week, the company announced it achieved LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for its Warren, Mich., data center, the first of its two new data centers. Tactics include using Michigan's cool outside air to chill water, so three-fourths of the year the servers' cooling system can remain off, GM says. It's also using a generator-plus-flywheel system for backup power instead of what it calls a "space-hogging battery-based uninterruptible power supply" that's commonly used. GM is using in-row cooling to contain heat and generally move less air.

It's good PR for a car and truck company to tout a green initiative. But that PR benefit exists for many companies, and most still don't consider green IT a high priority. One percent of InformationWeek 500 companies put "eco-friendly IT" among their top three tech innovation priorities this year, and less than 5% of data centers get LEED certification.

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GM IT has the advantage of a corporate "green infrastructure"; the company has four other LEED-certified buildings so it knows how the process works, and it has "green construction" practices that let it recycle 99% of material from the data center building site. IT shops without those company standards "would struggle at getting over that first hurdle" of getting executive commitment to shoot for a LEED-certified data center, said Jeff Liedel, GM executive director of global IT operations.

But companies don't do energy efficiency just for PR. The economic bang comes from the new data center using 70% less energy than GM used with its previous data centers to generate the same computing power. GM supports green initiatives, but the IT team still needed to convince executives that the data center could be LEED standard and "that we can still make the business case work," said Curt Loehr, GM IT manager of the data center construction.

A second decision GM made is to build this massive data center at all, rather than rent infrastructure-as-a-service capacity from super-efficient cloud providers such as Amazon, Rackspace or Verizon Terremark. The reasons? Cost, integration and speed, explained CIO Randy Mott.

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On the cost front, "those companies you mention have a goal of making a profit," said Mott. Given its huge scale, GM expects to be able to run a data center as efficiently as those providers and thus beat vendors on overall cost. Plus, GM needs its data centers' computing capacity to be highly integrated into GM operations, serving application and data needs from car design to manufacturing to marketing analytics.

GM is in the first year of a three-year plan to insource nearly all of its IT operations, going from 90% outsourced to 90% insourced. That move is part of GM's larger "strategy around change," Mott said, so IT must respond quickly to changing business needs. Integration and speed are "ingredients that don't necessarily get talked about" with cloud or other outsourced approaches, Mott said, but they are " key enablers for us."

GM is building its second data center in Milford, Mich., with the same commitment to go for LEED certification.

About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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