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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 October 5 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Saving Green by Going Green

Saving Green by Going Green
Colleges Cut Costs, Save Energy Through Green IT Initiatives

Community colleges need look no further than their power bills to understand why Green IT is quickly gaining in currency among information technology professionals of all stripes.

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The Green IT movement – the notion that institutions should make conscious decisions to minimize their energy consumption and reduce the carbon footprint of their computer networks – is being fueled not so much by concern over global warming as by the cold calculations of the bottom line.

There is no question that data centers are voracious consumers of energy. According to the U.S. Environmental Agency, energy use in the nation’s data centers doubled between 2000 and 2006 and is projected to double again by the year 2011. Colleges being battered by a damaging recession and squeezed by skyrocketing enrollments, and looking to cut costs, are embracing Green IT as never before.

The payoff can be handsome. According to a recent survey of public and private sector information technology professionals by technology consultant CDW-G, institutions of higher education estimated they could save 16 percent of their energy costs – or $352,000 – if they took full advantage of all available energy-saving opportunities.

But the same study found that IT professionals are struggling to balance the need for energy efficiency and the imperative to reduce equipment costs – all while providing services to their various customers.

“IT executives appear to be caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place,” said CDW-G Vice President Mark Gambill. “Under extreme budget pressure in a recessionary economy, their No. 1 IT purchasing concern is the current cost of equipment and services, which can put a damper on lowering the total cost of operations.

“While IT executives are trying to do the right thing – buy the right technology with the right capabilities at the best price – some may sacrifice greater long-term savings from reduced energy use by downgrading the importance of energy efficiency in the purchase equation.”

A Finite Resource

The reasons for the embrace of Green IT, however, go beyond the desire to save money. Power is a finite resource, and colleges need to ensure that their institutions can continue to operate their data centers. In a survey last year, Emerson Network Power, found that 64 percent of respondents said their data centers were faced with running out of power capacity by 2011. With no new power available, they’ll have to find ways to make do with existing electricity.

There is also ample incentive to support Green IT. The Obama administration has pledged to spend $150 billion over five years in green technology. Obama is calling for new buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030, and for improving new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade.

In addition, some kind of carbon-cap legislation is expected to pass the Congress and be signed into law. That prospect places a greater premium than ever on Green IT.

Much of the work being done on Green IT can be found in data centers, primarily by implementing server and storage virtualization to reduce the number of servers and storage devices drawing power.

Mailk Rahman, chief information officer at Central Piedmont Community College, said server virtualization – essentially using one server for multiple computer applications – holds great potential for reducing energy costs.

“It used to be that you had a relatively large number of servers for a small number of applications,” he said. “In some cases the server was only using 20, 30, 40 percent
of its capacity. The technology has matured to the point where you can now have one piece of hardware handling multiple applications.”

Of course, the potential downside is that if a server crashes, so do the multiple applications. Emerging technology is capable of creating redundancies so that a server crash won’t be disastrous.

Central Piedmont is also working on a virtual desktop plan under which a single central processing unit can be used by up to 20 users at the same time. Most modern CPUs use only a fraction of their potential computing power and disc space, he said.

“You can have numerous monitors and keyboards attached to a single unit,” he said. “What we are doing is taking a slice of the power. This is something that is being looked at by numerous institutions.”

Looking for Savings

Rahman said a convergence of factors prompted Central Piedmont to take a hard look at Green IT. This year, enrollment at the North Carolina school is up by 12 percent, while funding is down by the same percentage. That has everyone across the system looking for savings.

According to the CDW-G survey, there are numerous other steps colleges are taking to green their operations, including:

  • Buying equipment with low power/low wattage processors.
  • Using network-based power management tools.
  • Using software tools within uninterrupted power supplies to monitor power demand and energy use.
  • Monitoring data centers remotely to keep lights off when employees are not on site.
  • Managing cable placement to reduce demand on cooling systems.
  • Emphasizing distance learning so that students and employees need not travel between campuses.
  • While all those steps in and of themselves may see small, they can add up to big savings.

Milwaukee Area Technical College has made strides in creating a culture of sustainability, said Michael Walsh, a college assistant vice president. The most visible example is a 160-foot wind turbine at the college’s Mequon Campus that powered up in late 2008 and now provides 10 percent of campus energy needs.

The college also took a lead role at the 2008 Wisconsin Renewable Energy Summit, an event which attracted 1,200 educators, employers and students. The Center for Energy Conservation and Advanced Manufacturing opened at the college’s Oak Creek Campus. Full certificate programs in sustainable operations and Energy Engineering Technology began in January.

“We want to be able to serve our students and be energy conscious as well,” he said. “Everyone is looking for ways to conserve energy. Some of these steps may seem small, but they can really add up.”

Lone Star College in Texas, for example, has about 12,000 personal computers across its five campuses.

Oscar Ramos, director of technology services at the Lone Star’s Kingwood campus, said the college has implemented an advanced desktop power management system designed to ensure that computers are powered down each night. The initiative is expected to save the college $750,000 over three years.

“All systems that are purchased are required to have advanced power management technology,” he said. “This technology gives LSC the flexibility to shutdown systems at night and wake them up when needed to install patches and updates.”

Shah Ardalan, Lone Star’s chief information officer and vice chancellor of technology services, said the college has created new policies and standards for its 14 data centers. The focus is on converting and consolidating the servers into virtual servers, advanced power management and the use of high-density blade servers.

Blade servers are stripped-down computer servers with a modular design optimized to minimize the use of physical space. Blade servers are designed to save space and minimize power consumption while still having all needed functional components.

Newer Models

“It’s like an old car,” Ardalan said. “It uses a lot of energy. The newer models are much more efficient. The old servers have a lot of heating and cooling that need to be put in. You take out those old servers, and the need for air conditioning goes down.

Ramos and Ardalan said Lone Star has made a conscious decision to become a national leader in sustainable information technology.

“I have some personal convictions in this area,” Ramos said. “I come at it from a social perspective, personally. But at the college, it really is a focus on efficiency. The steps we are taking really bring some savings to the table. I think we have a social responsibility to the world around us, as well the need to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars. With the current budget situation, we really need to find ways of saving money.”

The difficulty, Ardalan said, is striking the proper balance between energy efficiency and providing required services.

“We can’t sacrifice function,” he said. “So we have to find technology that is smarter.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge, Ramos said, is to create a culture of sustainability across all components of the college so that it is supported by students, faculty, administrators and the community.

“We are trying to look at a lot of our decisions through a Green IT looking glass,” he said. “As a college, we have a responsibility to be a leader. We’re trying to put a public face on what we’re trying to do.”

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