A New Model for Energy Efficiency

Most of us look forward to spring for a short-lived relief from the high cost of winter heating bills before we have to kick on the air conditioner for hot summer days. Energy is expensive, but when we don’t see the bill, energy conservation and efficiency may not be at the forefront of our minds.

In day-to-day terms, it is easy to take steps to reduce energy use. Turning off lights and computers when we are not using them contributes to the bottom line. But how a school district manages one of the largest draws on energy power — the data center — can have a much greater impact on the bottom line, and on bottom line energy consumption.

It is time for districts to consider a more energy efficient data center model. New data center technologies, including targeted cooling systems and upgraded uninterruptible power supply (UPS), as well as those that ease server loads, effectively reduce power usage and more importantly, power bills.

Challenges to Efficiency
Making the switch to a more efficient data center model may not be easy for some districts. According to CDW-G’s Energy Efficient IT Report, many IT professionals struggle to allocate funds for energy efficient IT programs. Managers report that after meeting internal client needs, they have little budget left for new, more efficient IT systems.

Cost concerns may be more perception than reality, however. When asked specifically about upfront costs, just 17 percent of IT managers said that they believe the cost of energy efficient IT equipment is prohibitive, according to the report’s findings.

Another challenge is that senior management often gives higher priority to investments in other areas of the organization. K-12 IT professionals, specifically, report that they do not have a way to isolate and measure the energy used in IT operations, making it difficult to secure the upfront funds that could ultimately save the district money.

Step One: Monitor Energy Use
In many K-12 districts, the energy bill is managed by the facilities department, making it difficult for IT to fully understand its share of the district’s overall energy use. An ideal scenario would encourage IT and facilities to share both the tracking of, and responsibility for, energy use, providing the district with a clear picture of how and where energy is being used. When the IT department can actually see the energy costs associated with equipment, it can be easier to work with facilities to implement changes.

If IT is leading the move to energy efficiency, modular-based UPS devices help measure energy use, down to the amp. Power management software can provide additional reporting features, generating information on how much power each outlet draws in a month. Or, for a nuanced view of power consumption without software, managed or metered power strips offer the same functionality at a local level. Data from these systems can then be used in targeted outreach to specific departments using the most energy. Of note, it is not enough to look at how much power the device’s back plate indicates it can draw – you need to actually measure its real-time power usage.

Step Two: Reduce Energy Consumption
With a clear understanding of how energy is being consumed, districts can begin to kick the old data center model habit. In the old model, data centers were filled with single servers, each dedicated to running a single application. As organizations added additional applications to the network, data centers became bloated with servers that used only a fraction of their total computing potential.

Server virtualization enables multiple, independent applications to run on a single server, freeing up space for several applications and improving network speed. By consolidating servers, virtualization enables districts to run two or three servers at maximum capacity, as opposed to 10 servers at only 20 percent capacity.

Virtualization not only reduces the number of machines in the data center, but it often results in less power consumption and less demand on the cooling systems. In the old data center model, the temperature of the data center was monitored in total and cooled accordingly. Today, however, cooling system improvements provide air conditioning systems that can monitor specific server racks, affording the option to cool specific spots within the data center, down to an individual server. This design relies on hoses and temperature gauges located within the server rack that deliver cooler air to the exact point of contact where it is needed. Additionally, blanking panels can populate empty space in the server rack, essentially shutting the door and keeping the cooler air inside where it is needed.

Finally, UPS-monitoring software is critical to understanding device efficiency and capacity. For devices to reach 80 to 90 percent efficiency, the UPS should hold over 50 percent capacity, which is generally more capacity than most IT departments draw. UPS software also enables IT professionals to remotely shut down idle devices, further reducing energy use.

The Energy Efficient IT Report also recommends that districts consider using no-cost programs from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy to assess data center improvements and validate investments. These tools can be installed to track efficiency metrics, such as power usage effectiveness (PUE), which is the core measurement for the EPA Data Center program. Today, just 12 percent of K-12 districts track PUE, even though many have or are currently consolidating their data centers.

Step Three: Improve Energy Efficiency Beyond the Data Center
In addition to the data center, districts can reduce energy consumption all the way down to classroom computers. Below are a few best practices that can have a big impact to the bottom line.

  • Turn Off Idle Computers: Just as UPS software can turn off idle servers, districts should look to eliminate unnecessary power consumption from computers when they are not being used, particularly after school. Software can ensure that these devices turn off after-hours, as well as turn the computers back on in the morning
  • Virtualize Individual Computers, Too: The next logical step for virtualization is to move to the individual computer, or client level. Just as server virtualization reduces the number of servers in the data center, client virtualization reduces the need for every end-user to have his or her own dedicated software or hardware. Ideal for K-12 computer labs, client virtualization enables users to run programs off of the same processor, while having an individual monitor
  • Consider Innovative Approaches: Districts can get creative to lower their IT energy footprint. Working with energy and data center experts can help district find a solution that will provide a high return on investment. Some such approaches include deploying more power-efficient core switches, replacing edge and workgroup switches with more power-efficient switches or using the network as a platform to manage and reduce energy use

Invest in Energy Efficiency: Waiting until inefficient devices break or fail before replacing them is a good way to continue wasting electricity into the future. A commitment to energy efficiency sometimes requires an initial investment. Understand, though, that the investment can lead to reduced energy use and future savings, which are critical to a successful energy-efficient program

Step Four: Cut Costs for Success
So just how much can a district save? According to the 2010 Energy Efficient IT Report, 74 percent of K-12 respondents noted that their district has implemented or is developing a program to manage and reduce energy use in IT. Of those, 85 percent noted that the district either reduced annual energy costs by one percent or more (63 percent) or flattened energy consumption amidst rising electric costs (22 percent). That is big savings in just a few easy steps.

Mark Lafferty is the director of system solutions for CDW-G.