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Low-Carbon Computing

Campus IT has a tough mandate: Meet increased demand for computing capacity while decreasing technology’s carbon load. Five institutions share their strategies.

By Karla Hignite

Low-Carbon ComputingGreen IT is grabbing more mainstream headlines-and for good reason. Computing, data processing, and electronic file storage collectively account for a significant and growing share of energy consumption in the business world and on higher education campuses. With greater scrutiny of all activities that contribute to an institution's carbon footprint, information technology operations represent a largely untapped reservoir for energy reduction.

Last November EDUCAUSE held a summit to engage campus leaders in brainstorming solutions for how IT can contribute to sustainability efforts. The white paper that evolved from that event (see the “Green IT Resources for Business Officers” sidebar) underscores a key reason more work has not yet occurred in this realm: Campus dialogue about more efficient energy consumption has often focused on the usual suspects—facilities, transportation, dining, and so forth—with much less emphasis on the role that IT can play. “Only recently have campuses begun to utter the phrase 'green IT,' and while some have embraced the idea, most have not looked past simple efforts aimed at energy reduction to truly understand the transformative role that green IT might play across campus and in the larger quest to shrink our carbon footprints,” note the paper's authors.

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In addition to specific efforts to reduce carbon emissions, green IT must be seen as more than an effort to reduce overall waste or limit consumption, the authors conclude. Rather, a strategic vision for green IT must incorporate forward-reaching efforts that seek to curtail technology's environmental impact.

The good news is that up-front costs for a number of opportunities have a short payback time in terms of the energy and financial savings they can produce. The college and university examples highlighted in this article point to the breadth of possibilities for shrinking IT's carbon load and the importance of working in concert to put green IT at the top of an institution's strategic agenda.

Overlapping Initiatives

Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, is no stranger to sustainability. A recently installed geothermal heating and cooling system for the institution's new sports and performing arts centers was the largest project of its kind in the Northeast at the time it was built, according to Tim Burton, Adelphi's senior vice president and treasurer. The university is likewise no newcomer to sustainability in the technology arena. Since launching its green IT initiative in 2004, Adelphi has achieved an annual savings of more than $150,000 on energy costs through a combination of efficiency measures.

Projects already implemented include installing software to automatically shut down more than 750 lab computers one hour after the end of scheduled classes. They also include replacing 60 stand-alone servers with a highly efficient 14-slot blade center (a grouping of stripped-down computer servers designed to minimize use of physical space and maximize server use) and implementing a program to swap out older cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors with energy-efficient, flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, which use about half the energy. The IT department even purchased electric carts for delivering technology equipment throughout Adelphi's 75-acre main campus in Garden City.

Many of the projects have occurred in tandem and are part of a well-articulated plan developed by Jack Chen, Adelphi's chief information officer, who is able to quantify cost and energy savings in a convincing manner. For instance, offloading 8,500 student e-mail accounts to Google mail recently allowed the university to eliminate the six servers previously used to service those accounts, as well as the associated electricity and future replacement costs for obsolete equipment, notes Chen.

But Adelphi is not looking only at quick-payback projects. The university's commitment to long-term strategic change that puts IT at the forefront of reducing energy consumption is folded into the department's strategic plan, says Chen. Among the measures encompassed in this broader focus are to move holistically toward online and self-service functionality across the institution. The university's most recent foray into the paperless arena has been to introduce a pilot test for online course evaluations that will save at least 50,000 printed pages annually. Other plans are under way to explore cloud computing, which provides applications as resources via the Internet, and desktop virtualization, as well as to initiate a large-scale document imaging project to digitize university files.

University leaders also want to expand Adelphi's use of videoconferencing to dramatically reduce staff travel among the main campus and its three satellite locations, which range in distance from 15 to 90 miles. Last April the university tested that capability, connecting leaders from all four campuses to discuss major initiatives and future goals. Plans are under way to expand videoconferencing opportunities for academic programs as well.

Getting IT to the Table

READ MORE ONLINE

See "Six Strategies for Cutting Virtual Carbon" in Business Officer Plus.

Joyce Dickerson spent 15 years in new business development for technology firms in the Silicon Valley before returning four years ago to her alma mater—Stanford University, Stanford, California—to head a team focused on deploying new technology services. Two years ago, she joined a meeting of the university's sustainability working group, a team that advises the president and provost on what the campus community can do to support the institution's sustainability mission. At that time, IT did not have a presence at the table, but Dickerson quickly convinced others that IT could be a big part of the solution.

Even before assuming her newly created position as director of sustainable IT less than a year ago—a position that reports to both the facilities and IT services departments—Dickerson formed a separate working group composed of top technology leaders from across Stanford's highly decentralized campus. The group's purpose was to learn what others were already doing to curb IT-related energy consumption and to gauge interest in particular initiatives they might work on together.

The group's first action was to inventory energy use related to desktop computers (upwards of 40,000) and servers used for administrative and research computing (approximately 6,000). “By our estimates, these accounted for as much as 15 percent of overall campus energy use,” says Dickerson. “The group got excited about initiating a power-management program, so that's where we started—where our own energy was concentrated.” Deploying a centralized software tool to turn monitors off after 15 minutes of nonuse was difficult to argue against, given an estimated savings of a quarter million dollars annually, notes Dickerson. This single action also prompted a $60,000 rebate from the local utility company for the sizable energy reduction.

As an industry veteran, Dickerson appreciates the huge strides technology companies and independent research groups are making in data center management and IT energy efficiency. Stanford, like other major research institutions with a broad computing footprint, also suffers from data center creep. Several current projects entail collaboration with facilities leaders to assess relationships between current building management systems and IT equipment in a variety of scenarios. A primary goal of one project is to identify the most efficient conditions and settings for temperature control and airflow in individual server rooms. In total, five room types are under review based on their cooling practices: fan coil, chilled water racks, house system, outside air, and DX unit. An outside engineering firm is measuring and monitoring each room type to calculate power use efficiency, which will inform future construction, remodeling, or relocation of server rooms.

Elsewhere in the works are plans to build a highly efficient centralized data center for all of Stanford's high-performance research computing. The new center would employ outside air rather than chilled water for cooling. This and other efficiency measures, along with leading-edge technologies, could reduce overall energy use of these activities by 80 percent—an approximate savings of $3 million annually.

Computing Kilowatts

As part of a joint agreement among University of California System campuses, UC Irvine is pursuing an ambitious goal of reducing its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In the IT arena, that means certain smaller-scale projects must go on the back burner while the institution first focuses on larger initiatives like server consolidation and desktop virtualization. In reality, Wendell Brase and his staff are exploring short-, medium-, and longer-term projects to identify every kilowatt hour of savings possible.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to reducing IT energy consumption, says Brase, UC Irvine's vice chancellor for administrative and business services. “The focus may be different for each campus, based on which actions can deliver the most significant savings. For some, that may be server virtualization, but for others it could be power management and workstation efficiency upgrades.”

One common denominator should be conducting an IT energy audit, suggests Brase. A baseline audit—whether for the entire IT enterprise or specific areas of operation such as data centers—can help quantify associated carbon emissions. The findings will likely point to obvious opportunities worth pursuing, even in the midst of a recession, because of potential savings that can help finance additional initiatives, notes Brase. “An audit also provides a key tool for the chief business officer to use in encouraging purchasing, facilities, and IT staff to collaborate,” he adds.

Brase rejects the notion that higher education institutions are inefficient places for large-scale technology operations. “Many campuses have very efficient energy infrastructures and building management and power delivery systems, so it's not necessarily the case that a lower carbon footprint will result from moving certain functions off-site,” he argues. Much depends on what kind of power is being used and what kinds of efficiency gains are being implemented to reduce carbon emissions.

What many institutions may lack, concedes Brase, is accurate metering for IT operations that provides the kind of data business officers and IT leaders need to solve basic problems. “As we become more sophisticated in our understanding about where carbon is generated on our campuses and the investments we can make to reduce emissions, the best opportunities for action will become evident,” says Brase.

Reconciling E-Waste

Twice each year the IT department at Baltimore's Goucher College brings an electronics recycler to campus to make it easy for students, faculty, and staff to recycle unwanted personal electronics equipment and peripherals. One opportunity takes place during an annual campuswide sustainability day; the second is in conjunction with a conference the IT department conducts each summer to provide product and equipment demonstrations and education for all faculty and staff.

In addition to ensuring that technology-driven decision making, policies, and projects are in line with institution goals to reduce energy consumption, the IT department likewise believes it has a charge to make sure campus users are employing technology in a sustainable manner, says Frances White, director of Goucher's Decker Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. One low-cost initiative the college decided to tackle last year was to implement a printer management program, with the dual goal of raising awareness and reducing printing levels campuswide.

“We started by allowing all students to print 600 pages per semester, beyond which they would have to pay,” explains White. The software deployed prevents what White calls “mindless printing” by alerting users to the number of pages for each print job and asking whether the user still wants to submit the request. While the program saved more than 300,000 print pages the first year, IT staff are reassessing whether it's time to further reduce the per-semester allotment.

Currently staff and faculty printing are not monitored. “We're approaching them in a different manner, helping them to develop online forms and use administrative and academic tools like SharePoint and Blackboard to work more efficiently,” says White. The IT department is likewise helping campus customers digitize their information. In preparation for the college's recent reaccreditation process, all the necessary institution files were scanned and digital versions were fully accessible to the accreditation team.

“One thing we feel strongly about within IT is that if we ask users to do something, we do it first,” says White. In conjunction with its physical relocation to a new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified facility—a combination library, computing lab, and student center—that opened this fall, her group hired a summer intern to scan and then shred reams of paper files in an effort to migrate transactions with campus users and vendors online.

“We also make it our priority to supply whatever students need to learn,” says White. Whereas some institutions are downsizing public computer labs because most students these days bring personal computers with them to campus, Goucher is ramping up—not in number of units but in hours of availability. In preparation for opening the 24-hour lab in the new facility, the college extended the hours of its former library to accommodate the growing interest among students for round-the-clock interaction.

“In our case, we've definitely seen use of our public labs grow in recent years,” notes White. She attributes this to the learning style of Millennials, who prefer a group setting when doing their work. “They may be across the room texting each other, but they still like to be in the same place,” says White. Despite the uptick in lab use, the extra hours of operation don't affect Goucher's budget, claims White. For starters, the new building is much more energy efficient. And, in the process of preparing for the new center, smaller labs scattered across campus were closed or consolidated.

Building for IT Flexibility

In 2002, the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees mandated that all new buildings meet LEED certification standards. LACCD has since embarked on a $5.7 billion voter-approved initiative to provide state-of-the-art facilities at each of the district's nine community colleges. According to Larry Eisenberg, LACCD's executive director of facilities planning and development, IT has been involved with planning from the start of the district's commitment to green construction efforts, which will reduce water and energy use and save the colleges millions of dollars in operating costs.

“My response to the question, 'What comes first, IT or facilities?' is yes,” says Jorge Mata, LACCD's chief information officer. “When either facilities or IT staffs are brought in at the end of a project, it usually entails substantial dollars to fix something. That not only creates a cost burden, but it's also politically expensive when you have to spend money twice.” With its new building infrastructure, the district is incorporating renewable energy supplies to help power facilities and is implementing a comprehensive energy-demand management program to monitor energy use. Just as critical, the technology backbone will allow for full flexibility and expansion to accommodate more distance education, notes Eisenberg.

“In the past, the tendency within most IT departments has been to over-provision technology, hedging our bets about what and how much we might need so that we wouldn't have to touch it again,” notes Mata. “Now we are migrating to a modular standards-based approach so that we deploy only what we need, but we also reserve the capability to grow overnight. At every level in our computing and storage, we are looking to virtualize our systems,” explains Mata. That includes employing thin client computing on desktops and blade server technology in the new facilities. “This will help us cut our IT carbon footprint in half without losing any capability,” notes Mata.

Subodh Kumar, a consultant with CFM Group, works closely with LACCD on technology strategies. He is helping Mata and Eisenberg develop a road map to identify IT issues they can address at both the strategic and technical levels and to develop meaningful measures for tracking results. “In the year since we implemented high-definition videoconferencing, the cost savings from reduced travel time for faculty and staff between the district and its nine campuses has paid for the new system in full,” says Kumar. The three are working together to develop a formula that assesses associated carbon savings.

As for LACCD's existing IT infrastructure, carbon and cost savings will continue to be realized as older technology systems are retired, notes Mata. Newer technologies are much more scalable and efficient by design. Yet, choosing a particular technology because it is green may not always be the best choice, notes Kumar. “You need a strategic reason for what you want to do. Then you can look for a green solution.”

Neither should you start your selection based on how something will reduce operational costs, adds Mata. “If you begin with operational costs, then you shoehorn the project. We start with asking how this will help students. If the solution also happens to be green and operationally effective, you achieve the trifecta,” says Mata.

Eisenberg believes there is also a practical element that should never be overlooked: Does the new building or technology work? “We need to change our mind-set so that we think about sustainability as fundamental to building facilities and about incorporating technologies that work right from the start.”

Getting What You Budget For

READ AN ONLINE EXTRA,“An IT Assessment of Campus Sustainability,” in Business Officer Plus.

One key to the success of Adelphi's green IT initiatives has been the forward-looking budgeting process the university has put in place. Five years ago Chen instituted a rolling three-year IT plan into which he incorporates the specific green initiatives he thinks the university should implement and in what period during that three-year cycle. The budget goes to all senior officers of the university so they are aware of what IT is already doing, explains Burton. “When a new idea does surface, there is less ground to cover with administration because they are already 90 percent knowledgeable about what we have planned.”

Chen is likewise careful to fold in shorter-term payback projects with longer-term efforts so that savings can help fund future initiatives. “Our goal is always to do more with less—whether that's less hardware or software, less energy, or less paper,” says Chen.

A looming question for higher education overall is whether the current recession may cause green IT movements to lose financial steam at a time when they've been gaining conceptual momentum on more campuses. Several recent surveys suggest continued interest and commitment to pursuing IT-related sustainability initiatives—at least for now. Results from a December 2008 survey by Stamford, Connecticut-based IT research company Gartner Inc. indicate that more than one third of the 620 organization respondents worldwide (36 percent in the United States) anticipate spending more than 15 percent of their IT capital budgets on green IT projects. The summary report, “The Impact of Recession on Green IT,” found that in most cases, the recession will not change or will increase the priority of green IT projects.

Enthusiasm appears to remain mostly steady on higher education campuses as well, according to the preliminary results of a major EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) survey on green IT conducted in June 2009. Of the respondents, 50.8 percent noted that during the past 12 months, their institution's financial situation had worsened somewhat, with another 25.6 percent indicating their institution's situation had worsened greatly. In other words, a full three quarters of respondents noted a worsened financial condition of their institutions.

And yet, when asked whether during the past 12 months their institution's environmental sustainability initiatives had remained unaffected by pressures related to the economy, 46.9 percent agreed or strongly agreed. When asked the same question about the central IT organization's environmental sustainability initiatives, half (50.9 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that initiatives had remained unaffected by financial pressures. This seems to suggest that despite economic and funding pressures for institutions, there remains a sense that at least some sustainability initiatives should be—and are—moving forward, according to Mark Sheehan, an ECAR fellow in charge of the survey's analysis.

For now, green IT is still a go. Beyond financial backing however, other challenges remain, including the need for greater collaboration and better articulation about the role of IT leadership in campus sustainability efforts.

More Heads Are Better Than One

In her varied role, Dickerson joins other sustainability-focused staff at Stanford to provide consultation to building tenants throughout the institution about specific actions they can take to reduce energy and waste. “A series of small interventions like purchasing energy-smart surge protectors to eliminate phantom power helped one building lower its energy costs by more than 20 percent this past spring,” notes Dickerson. From her observation, building engineers are largely tuned in to best practices for efficient heating, cooling, and ventilation. The problem is that IT and facilities staffs don't always talk to each other about even simple things, like the best place to locate vents. And that's a huge missed opportunity—especially with regard to new construction of server rooms and centralized data centers, argues Dickerson.

Brase has been similarly surprised to discover that key experts within UC Irvine's IT and facilities management departments who knew each other socially had never really talked about the physical conditions required for efficient IT operations. “We had data centers that essentially hadn't moved beyond the 1960s in terms of their efficiencies, yet none of us had questioned what had been ingrained for decades as the operating standard,” says Brase. In addition to getting seasoned professionals talking, Brase suggests tapping the next generation of IT leaders for their input. “As we've been discussing how to reduce our carbon footprint, we've found a whole group of younger employees who are already savvy about these issues and have put forth some creative ideas for enhancing operations.”

Another untapped source at many institutions is faculty, believes Dickerson. She's identified a handful of Stanford professors who are conducting their own research in IT energy efficiency, and she plans to partner with them on future initiatives that would also allow students hands-on research experience.

Richard Katz, vice president of EDUCAUSE, would add yet another position to the IT energy-efficiency team: the HR officer. “Getting faculty on board with changes and communicating with all employees about the need to modify personal actions underscores the critical behavioral component of energy efficiency,” says Katz. Involving HR could also give green IT a broader appeal if everyone understands the upside. “When you're trying to manage your campus budget, you go where the money is,” says Katz. Currently there is more than a fair amount of wasted energy on most campuses. Because IT is a big user of energy, relatively small interventions to lower total energy use can make an enormous difference.

“If I were told to cut my budget by 20 percent, and if I knew that my IT-related energy costs were largely unmanaged, that's a no-brainer. Going after waste is always good because that may mean you won't have to cut personnel or delay building maintenance projects, and that should appeal to everyone at every level,” argues Katz. “We have to view inefficiency as an opportunity in disguise-as gold on the floor.”

Building In Accountability

IT leaders who are aware of and motivated to pursue the benefits of green IT essentially have two paths they can follow, notes Katz. One is to ensure that the IT department itself functions as efficiently as possible. The other is for the CIO to ask how IT can help the entire campus manage its energy consumption and carbon release. “There is much more that institutions could be doing in terms of sensors, monitoring, and predictive modeling and analysis. IT could lead these efforts to create an enterprisewide energy management system to tighten efficiency at every turn,” notes Katz. The dilemma is that where there isn't a knowledge gap about how to proceed, a governance gap may still hinder wide-scale accomplishments. “Mobilizing deans, associate vice presidents, and other key players to accept standards, common solutions, and common infrastructure can be a political buzz saw for the CIO,” Katz says.

An important question for every institution is to what extent IT should be involved in campus sustainability initiatives. “Institution leaders must ferret out how serious they really are about energy management and build accountability into the organization,” says Katz. “Ultimately, if those tasked with controlling energy management don't have real authority, and if specific goals are not formalized, energy management will always be an afterthought,” he warns.

While Katz is heartened that so many institution leaders have expressed good intent—evidenced in part by the number who have signed on to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment—he is a bit concerned that enthusiasm about climate neutrality could eventually follow the same path as the quality management and business process reengineering movements. “Wherever we create a new bureaucracy for which we bolt on commitment rather than blend it into our campus formula, we won't make serious progress,” says Katz.

The Multiplier Effect

Dickerson understands that dilemma well. While she has full support and enthusiasm from her leadership, getting everyone else on board and in sync can be tough. She views her role as an enabler, working with IT leaders, faculty, and administration to identify specific projects that evoke strong interest and show a solid business case so that they're hard to resist from both the cost-savings and carbon-reduction standpoints. She sees at least three years of work ahead of her, steering projects that have already been assessed as having a one- to three-year payback, but she concedes that the bigger challenge may be weaving sustainability into IT strategic planning so that green IT is as much a part of IT's mind-set as are data security and reliability.

Like Dickerson, Brase and his staff have been busy tinkering with server and data center efficiency, testing changes to room layout, temperature control settings, and cooling and ventilation techniques. “The idea is to go a little at a time. Observe, take measurements, and make adjustments until you arrive at optimal operation with the least energy consumption,” he says.

From a holistic view, Brase believes that calculations used to factor campus energy efficiency should be assessed based on their multiplicative value. For instance, introducing efficient power delivery and heat removal in campus facilities should be multiplied by the impact of instituting efficient data processing and storage, by the changed behaviors of individual users who employ power management features, and by reduced and double-sided printing, argues Brase. “Efficiency is measured not by adding but by multiplying, because the final result leveraged will be the product of all the actions we take throughout our campuses.”

Going forward, every institution should factor in the exponential impact IT can and already does have—positively or negatively—on campus sustainability success.

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

Green IT Resources for Business Officers

The following resources provide additional insights, tools, and case studies regarding green computing and ideas for financing projects.

From NACUBO

  • Financing Sustainability on Campus, a new NACUBO resource available online and in print, provides the first comprehensive tool for business officers in higher education who seek a clear explanation of financial tools and programs they can use to promote sustainability on their campuses. The book begins with an outline of strategies business officers can follow while helping them to identify opportunities, analyze project economics, and pursue project funding. Subsequent chapters examine funding mechanisms such as revolving loan funds and Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, as well as what to look for when negotiating an energy performance contract.
  • Critical Path Issues on the Way to Carbon Neutrality,” a NACUBO Perspectives report by Wendell Brase, vice chancellor of the University of California Irvine, emphasizes the critical role of the chief business officer in an institution's commitment to sustainability. The report provides an overview of the tools, resources, and public policies that colleges and universities need to markedly reduce or neutralize their carbon emissions.

From EDUCAUSE

  • “The Role of IT in Campus Sustainability Efforts,” a January 2009 white paper, is among the many resources available from the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. Numerous reports, bulletins, webinars, and podcasts on a range of topics related to green IT, sustainable computing, virtualization, and so forth, include: “Climate Change, Campus Commitments, and IT,” which identifies more than 30 initiatives underway on campuses today; “What's Your Carbon Footprint? Sustainability and Green IT Initiatives That Make a Difference”; and “Greening IT: Sustainability in the Data Center and Across Campus.” Look for a full report from ECAR's recent survey on green IT, due out in the first quarter of 2010.

From online sources

  • Climate Savers Computing Initiative, started by Google and Intel in 2007, is a nonprofit group of consumers, businesses, and conservation organizations committed to producing and purchasing products that meet specified power-efficiency targets to reach a 50 percent reduction in computing-related power consumption by 2010.
  • Fifty Questions: What Business and IT Officers Need to Know About Their Campus Carbon Emissions,” by Wendell Brase with others at the University of California-Irvine, is a checklist for CBOs and CIOs to use in assessing the status of IT energy efficiency and areas of potential cost and carbon savings.
  • Green Electronics Council was founded in 2005 to bring focus to the special issues of electronics and sustainability. The council manages EPEAT, a green electronics certification and purchasing system for energy-efficient laptops, desktops, and monitors.
  • The Green Grid is a global consortium of IT companies and professionals seeking to enhance energy efficiency in data centers and business computing practices through a common set of metrics, processes, methods, and new technologies.
  • Think Green Alliance is a community of businesses and organizations committed to providing environmentally and economically sustainable services and products. From its Web site, the alliance offers a carbon calculator designed to measure IT infrastructure energy use and to illustrate how initiatives such as server virtualization, thin client strategies, and use of LCD and LED monitors can translate into carbon savings.

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