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Business Officer Magazine

Six Strategies for Cutting Virtual Carbon

Here are six initiatives colleges and universities are implementing to varying degrees to reduce IT-related costs and energy consumption.

By Karla Hignite

For a discussion of how campus IT is being required to meet increased demand for computing capacity while decreasing technology's carbon load, see "Low-Carbon Computing" in the October 2009 issue of Business Officer.

1. Data center efficiency. Storing and processing data is a huge source of IT energy consumption and cost. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the electricity consumed in data centers and telecommunication systems represents 3 percent of the U.S. total and is growing rapidly. Well-run centers address several key factors:

  • Centralization. While researchers often want easy access to their servers, the reality is that multiple small-scale data centers physically spread throughout a campus can waste hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Centralizing an institution's data center operations saves substantially on energy consumption and operating costs.
  • Consolidation. While newer servers are much more efficient, older servers can be consolidated to maximize usage, since many current systems run at capacity levels far below 50 percent. Consolidation often results in elimination of servers that are no longer needed due to efficiency gains. Among new developments in server technology are blade servers—high-density, integrated, expandable systems that can increase server performance without increasing data center size or management costs. Likewise, campuses experimenting with cloud computing are looking to leverage the Internet and virtual machines to reduce the number of physical servers on campus required to store data.
  • Cooling. Because servers generate a lot of heat, the energy used to cool these systems can cost as much as the energy they require to run. However, manufacturer-prescribed operating temperature and humidity ranges are significantly higher than what many have typically employed as an operating standard. More are now experimenting with raising the thermostat in campus data centers to see how high temperatures can go while still avoiding hot spots. Others are testing data center design, including hot- and cold-aisle configuration for equipment racks, and are introducing new methods of airflow such as the infusion of outside air versus air conditioning.

2. Desktop virtualization. Virtualization encompasses a wide range of activities that pool resources, enabling less reliance on individual pieces of hardware, better equipment use rates, and less downtime. For instance, thin client computing refers to an approach to relocate the central processing and memory components of the desktop workstation to the data center server. The resulting “thin” desktop device has fewer breakable parts, is easier to maintain, has approximately twice the life cycle, and can run on as little as one-tenth of the power of a normal personal computer.

3. Equipment. In addition to decommissioning or consolidating unneeded or underused servers and other hardware, more institutions are replacing CRT monitors with LCD monitors, which consume about one third to one half the energy. Likewise, some campus IT departments are systematically phasing in more laptop computing, since laptops use about 80 percent less energy than desktop models. In the move to reduce paper, toner, and energy waste, more institutions are also incorporating double-sided printers and setting up printer management programs to discourage unnecessary printing. Procurement policies that require or encourage purchasing Energy Star or EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) systems and equipment also contribute to an overall reduced energy load.

4. Power management. Activating features that automatically shut down computers, monitors, and printers at a designated time or switch to sleep mode after a period of inactivity eliminate the slow drain of energy from workstations that run continuously. Likewise, adjusting settings for servers can help save tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. As institutions reduce the overall consumption of campus IT devices, some are also looking at electrical power generation and supply options to see how their campuses can shift their energy consumption toward renewable sources campuswide, including to power campus computing activities.

5. Work processes. While many institutions have now moved into the arena of distance and online education, fewer have instituted telecommuting programs for employees or embraced technologies for online meetings. However, more are moving in this direction, particularly with regard to videoconferencing capability to curtail carbon emissions generated by staff travel to and from satellite campuses.

6. Electronic waste. More campuses are not only facilitating awareness campaigns to reduce unnecessary use of energy but are also establishing programs and policies for handling outmoded equipment and other electronic waste. In addition to recycling monitors, printers, printer cartridges, and other IT-related hardware, an area of growing interest is how to repurpose waste heat generated by IT and to conserve and recycle water used in cooling systems.

One or more of these strategies may be right for your institution depending upon your overall strategy and goals for implementing green IT.

KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.


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