IT Is Easy Being Green

There’s a quiet revolution occurring within information technology departments on some college campuses. They are taking notice of the energy used to power desktops and data centers and they are starting to make adjustments to shift the burden.

Historically, IT departments have not been held responsible for controlling energy costs. But that might be changing as the public becomes savvy about efficiency and waste.

“CIOs are not interested in becoming green at all; it’s not within their mandate. Their mandate ends where the socket meets the walls. They do not pay for electricity, that’s something that facilities does,” said Dmitry Shesterin, vice president of marketing for software vendor Faronics.

But given the uptick in public awareness coupled with pared down budgets, more emphasis is being placed on measurable outcomes.

Rich Siedzik of Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, regularly talks to his IT colleagues throughout the nation and is always surprised to learn how few department heads are collecting statistics about power or efficiency from their data centers.

What’s important, said the director of computer and telecommunication services, is that something is calculated.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re measuring. If you even just calculate how much power you’re consuming in a data center — maybe it’s not as exact as you’d like it to be, but it’s something that will at least tell you if you’re going forward, or going backward.”

Bryant University embarked on an aggressive plan six years ago to have a fully wired campus and be a technology leader within higher education. Today, all students get laptops, server rooms have been freed up for more classroom space, and operating system efficiencies have been unveiled.

They hired IBM to help them reorganize their scattered servers and centralize them into one location. And they virtualized computers and reduced their footprint from 1,100 sq. ft. to 500 sq. ft.

Siedzik said they “saved a lot of real estate” by installing blade architecture to save space. Blades are thinner servers that stack vertically across the server rack, as opposed to typical servers that slide into 19-in. racks and stand vertical on top of each other. This change has saved not only space, but also electrical power and hardware costs.

“Where I might have had one big server that took up so much space in that rack, now I have a chasse with 14 servers in it taking up the same amount of space. They all share the same power supplies, the same fans, the same Ethernet cards, so there’s a big reduction in overhead components,” said Siedzik.

The Cool Side of Being Greener
Cooling just the equipment parts that need it is a major switch in IT hardware management. Traditionally, the entire room is cooled, which is a waste of energy. In some cases, target cooling can make data centers 20 to 30 percent more energy efficient.

 “What makes this new and efficient is that you’re putting the cooling right next to the heat source, and coolers in one row might not be working as hard as coolers in the other row,” said Siedzik.

Jody Cefola, IBM site and facilities services chief marketing officer, said air conditioning can run 60 to 70 percent of a power profile, so rethinking the system can make a huge difference.

“They merge new servers that can be 30 to 40 percent more energy efficient with data center infrastructure that can be 20 to 30 percent more efficient and you get the best of both,” she said.

And Bryant University has seen positive results. Cooling costs and electrical consumption dropped by 15 percent in 2008, the year after the new data center was installed.

The combination of the data center, virtualization, and the standardization mechanism Bryant put in place saved the University 20 percent in both operational and capital expenses and cut their administrative overhead 30 percent over an 18-month period.

The University has deliberately charged down a path that has transformed the way they do business.

“Before we had this data center, we had so many issues with power, cooling, and space that we consumed. We worried too much,” said Siedzik, adding, “We have taken on this newfound stewardship for energy. It’s just become part of what we do.”

IBM’s Cefola claimed that Bryant is one of the many universities that they have joined forces with in the last three years to become more resourceful.

“Colleges want to teach a curriculum around technology and green, and so they want to figure out their own operations and demonstrate that they can be efficient and green,” she said.

Cloud Computing
Another avenue for saving money and consuming less electricity and hardware on campus is to outsource using a concept known as cloud computing.

Joel Smith, vice provost and chief information officer for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that cloud computing can have multiple meanings, and definitely has its pluses and minuses.

The term is used to refer to software-as-a-service computing (SaaS), as well as access to computing and storage resources which are easy to configure on the fly and can be purchased just for the period of time that is needed. An example would be Microsoft’s new Azure service.

Configuration on the fly is when there is an application that needs lots of storage and computing power, but only for a limited amount of time.

 “So it’s a way of flexibly getting resources without having to engage in any capital expenditures,” said Smith. “The idea is that [cloud computing] is a common shared service that many people are accessing.”

Another category referred to as cloud computing is the modern version of outsourcing. Many institutions outsource services to vendors or to other institutions, such as an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to a data center. The vendor maintains the hardware and the college accesses it, without the hassle of upgrades and patches.

Add software as a service, and you are basically renting the vendor software, which runs remotely using a cloud-like structure to get to your campus. You never purchase the software or install it. The interface is a Web browser.

“There might be 10 institutions running their software or hardware and just paying for just the services that they want to run,” said Smith.

Some examples include the customer relationship products offered by Salesforce and human resource management software available through Workday.

The upside to cloud computing is that colleges don’t need to deal with upgrades, patches, or replacing servers. If the vendor is good, they offer only the services the colleges need.

“It takes the complexity off your campus and puts it in the hands of the vendor offering the service,” said Smith.

The Other Side of the Silver Lining
The jury on the downside is still out. It’s not yet clear if there are future gains in capital expenses, such as not having to spend upfront for hardware and software licenses.

“However, if the rent you pay for the software is too high, then over the years you might lose the capital expense game in the form of long-term leasing prices,” warned Smith.

College executives need to be clear about their ultimate goal, too. Simply shifting the energy burden by outsourcing does not reduce one’s carbon footprint, according to Faronics’ Shesterin.

“At the same time, they just increased the load at Google or another company that has to put in an extra server or add extra capacity to service that particular customer. So they essentially moved the load from one shoulder another,” he said.

And because important data as well as the energy burden is shifted to an off-campus source, the cloud computing model has raised concerns for privacy advocates because of the greater ease by which the companies hosting the cloud services control, and thus, can monitor at will, lawfully or unlawfully, the communication and data stored between an institution and the host company.

In response to these concerns, in January, Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel at Microsoft, urged both Congress and the information technology industry to act to ensure that the burgeoning era of cloud computing is guided by an international commitment to privacy, security, and transparency for consumers, businesses, and government.

Until laws are written and passed to strengthen privacy and security protections, deter cybercrime, enhance transparency, and clarify international rules and regulations, campus administrators must weigh for themselves the energy-efficiency advantages of cloud computing against privacy concerns.

Powering Down Computer Monitors

One way to keep it local is to make adjustments to desktop energy output.

Howard Community College in Maryland is singing the praises of an application they installed in 2007. IT officials have reduced hardware wear and tear on student desktops, while saving up to $10,000 a month on electricity.

The college’s 2,800 student computers shut off within two hours of no keystrokes, as well as turn off at midnight, thanks to a product called Power Save from Faronics. The result is an annual savings of $100,000.

Howard has also rehabilitated their network room by changing the configuration so that the air-handling system is more efficient. They also added virtual servers to reduce the overall number of servers from 89 to 42.

Sung Lee, director of student computer support, said that despite the fact that they don’t have energy measurements in place, they are confident that the servers put out less heat and use less electricity. They instead rely on a Green Grid formula that is based on air handling and cooling.

“We use that to work out the best optimal energy usage for our servers,” he said. Green Grid is a standardized set of metrics that IT professionals use to measure energy efficiency.

Inconvenience appears to be the only disadvantage the College has experienced so far with Power Save, said Lee. “We had several complaints when we initially deployed this throughout the campus.”

Another issue occurred when movies or PowerPoint presentations turned off in midstream. So the college bought software called Net Support School that allows faculty members to turn on student computers from one workstation within 10 minutes, and alerts the person who is presenting when the computer is about to be shut off.

In last decade, the number of servers on campuses has grown six-fold because of consumer demand for immediate gratification with the applications they use daily. However, a global mood swing is now taking place, and unnecessary waste of precious energy is getting more attention. College and university IT departments are starting to respond and finding that the upshot is money saved.

Rhonda Morin is a writer based in Oregon. She’s the former editor-in-chief of Oregon Health News, a public policy publication. She has also served as an editor for Thomas Magazine, and associate editor for a national computer trade publication. Rhonda can be contacted at 503/912-1975 or [email protected]