Is it possible to deliver top customer service while implementing green IT practices? Allstate's VP of technology solutions explains how the company's new eco-friendly datacenter is achieving both goals.
Anthony Abbattista is vice president of technology solutions for Allstate, where he's responsible for enterprise technology strategy, information services, technical architecture, technology governance, and infrastructure. He is also a technology working group member of the Executives' Club of Chicago and serves on the Sun Microsystems Executive Advisory Council. Prior to joining Allstate in 2003, he was a senior partner at DiamondCluster International. He also spent eight years as an associate partner at Andersen Consulting in its emerging technology group.
I had a chance to talk with Anthony about his recent involvement in Allstate's groundbreaking green datacenter in Rochelle, IL — one of the most energy-efficient technology projects anywhere — which is set to receive gold-level certification this year.
Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.1. Jeff: As you were considering this datacenter project at Allstate, how much did your decisions tie into economic, political, and environmental issues? Anthony: We always want to do what is best for our customers, so our first goal was driving down total cost of ownership. How can we be more affordable, provide a better user experience, and be innovative? Those are the key drivers in all of our major expenditures. Going green, availability, and more "nines" are the things that can then set us apart from building just any datacenter. That's what was important to our social and environmental accountability, and doing what is right for the planet. Green IT is just one of many great initiatives at Allstate. Along with other things, like paper usage and postage, we're always pursuing ways we can have a smaller carbon footprint for our society and for the planet. It's all about just being responsible citizens. 2. Jeff: How much of the $50 million plus that was invested into the entire project was additional margin for the green aspects? Anthony: As far as being able to calculate that additional cost, we never really broke it down that way. We started into the initial design of the building with some fundamentally green concepts at the forefront of our plan. Our expectation is to get at least 20 years from the building and the capital improvements from a fiscal perspective, so with that in mind, we started off with a good amount of green in the proposal: variable-speed equipment, chillers, and other details we already knew how to do right from experience with our other facilities.
On the value-engineering side, we took each item on an individual basis. If the payback was good, and operating costs made sense in the building and the leasehold of 20 years, we moved forward. We also made a litany of incremental changes as we went through the process. From the start, our plan was to create a building that was certified at the basic level according to LEED, which is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard of the Green Building Council. Not long into the project, we realized we weren't far from getting a silver certification. From there, we turned it into my "go for the gold" challenge, and I believe we're going to be able to do that. Gold is relatively unusual for a datacenter. We're expecting to get the final confirmation from the council in the early part of this year.3. Jeff: I notice in the project descriptions that some of the environmental details of the building are fairly high tech, like the window louvers. But others are much more low tech, like the reflective paint on the roof. How did you prioritize what you were going to include or leave out? Anthony: Some were easy choices of the green option over a generic alternative without a significant additional cost, like the roof paint, and those were just automatic. With others, like the variable-speed chilling devices and lighting, there was an offset to be considered in the immediate investment of capital. With energy recovery, we actually get all the heat for the office space and finished areas from the datacenter, so we have zero heating costs. That was one of our easier decisions. Then there were decisions that were blended. But when we look at the original building costs per square foot, I would say we are close to our original estimates.
4. Jeff: Was your decision to build in the Rochelle location similar to the rationale of Wal-Mart and Northern Trust, which also chose that same area recently? Anthony: I believe some of it was. We looked at four or five locations within 100 miles of the home office, so we could maintain a good network and go back and forth when we need to. This technology park was also very friendly to what we wanted to do, and power and friendliness were two of the most important factors for us. They own their own utilities and were easy to work with in terms of getting all the utilities with good rates to the new building. There's also major fiber that follows the interstates, up through Rockford and along I-88, so that has enabled us to build a highly connected communication network of the future. 5. Jeff: From a technology ROI standpoint, could you talk about some of the improvements the datacenter has made in your capabilities? Anthony: Virtualization was the most significant part of the upgrade, particularly with Windows and UNIX, which are both our biggest and highest-growth platforms. That's where you start to see server-spread, and so the servers become relatively less expensive. In a lot of datacenters without virtualization, you're eating up both floor space and kilowatt-hours with largely underutilized gear.
We're also using a good deal of thin-provisioning in storage to be able to oversubscribe our storage space. An allocation of two gigabytes doesn't mean there's going to be a need for that amount, but you have to reserve it. So we've been working on a multi-tier storage strategy to thin-provision or oversubscribe, and that has already been working extremely well in our existing datacenters.
Other features we've invested in are state-of-the-art power and cooling management technologies in the facility itself. The real trick there is to get free cooling days, which means on a cooler day we're just circulating chilled water and opening a window, so to speak. We spent a fair amount of time figuring out the energy management piece. One of the major issues in a modern datacenter is heat, which is another reason we decided to locate in the north.6. Jeff: In terms of improving IT efficiency in relation to the company-at-large, how would you rank technology in the big picture of business strategy? Anthony: Considering that our business is all about customers having access to us through multiple channels at all times of day or night, through the Internet, call centers, or our agencies, we need to have a completely integrated IT strategy. We're focused on total accessibility and a simplified technology environment at the same time. We made a strategic decision within the last five years to maximize availability and reliability to our customers. That puts technology, along with people and capital, right at the heart of what we do. Technology capability is definitely valued as an integral part of the business at Allstate, which is why we have the great talent and are able to devote such significant resources to technology. And to tell you the truth, I wouldn't want to work in a place where what I do is not considered critical to the business. 7. Jeff: Has the datacenter created any new green-tech jobs or jobs in construction or other areas? Anthony: Essentially, we have gone from four datacenters to two, and we have done that with the goal of increased efficiencies. It wasn't the primary expectation to create jobs with a lights-out datacenter. There are going to be advantages in having less tape or no tape at all over time, updating the technology and having fewer moving parts, but the changes to staffing have been very minor. We were running distributed to begin with, and we have people all over the world who are part of our operations and infrastructure team, so it was a highly virtual operation before this building and it continues to be run that way. 8. Jeff: Will your customers see specific results from the new datacenter? Anthony: The ultimate effect on the customer will be in greater cost savings and also in further improvements of service and availability from our call centers. From the customer's perspective, the expectations are high that we'll always be there. On the IT side, we are sometimes marrying 30-year-old technology with state-of-the-art technology, so this really helps us simplify that kind of environment with fewer networks, fewer moving parts, fewer mainframes and things to break. We expect this kind of innovation to support our pursuit of competitive and exceptional customer experience. We want to be recognized as a three- or four-nines company on all the customer-facing things we do. 9. Jeff: What do you believe has been your primary personal contribution to bringing the new datacenter online? Anthony: My primary responsibility is to be a good coach and cheerleader. It's difficult work; it's a marathon really to get into a facility like this and do it right. So while it has been a twinkle in my eye doing it, I spend a lot of time helping people break down barriers and see the economic and service benefits. I help people keep the right perspective, keep their eye on the ball, and own it, and they do because they believe in it. 10. Jeff: How would you encourage other companies that are looking at the barriers and obstacles to building a facility like this? Anthony: Instead of being enamored with the technology, it's important to keep the business as the first priority. Some of the decisions about what we wanted to do were made two and a half years ago in different economic times. The company lived with those decisions and supported us all the way through. You don't stop a project of this scope just because you come into a bad economy. We are business-minded and engaged intellectually as well as financially, so we didn't get distracted. We knew what we were doing and why, and we stuck to it.
Every decision we made was based on using technology to run the business as a business, and not "gee whiz, isn't this cool?" I think that's been the key to managing this project and knowing when enough is enough. You can always find one more great idea, but keeping the business and customer focus first is what got this project approved to begin with and then got us through it. Our business strategy going forward supports a more exceptional customer experience; less documentation, e-documents, less annoyance, mobility, customer intimacy, and giving the customer a voice in our differentiation. Technology can only make that better, knowing everything we need to know about the customer and carrying the right products and services.
Our business is about having the right conversation at the time of need. The plumbing and wiring really takes care of itself when you run it like a business. We're reinventing ourselves around putting the customer relationship at the center of everything we do.
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