Making a Case for Green IT

HIGHER EDTECH | by Mark Lafferty (guest columnist)

Despite budget challenges, institutions can see real benefits with energy efficient IT

Hefty federal and state-level budget cuts are having a huge impact on higher education institutions.  Reductions in either federal or state level funding poses a challenge for any institution, but facing reductions from both sources make the task even more challenging.

Adding to the situation, recently President Obama called on U.S. organizations to invest in information technology (IT) and clean energy technology.  How do higher education institutions keep afloat with budget cuts while investing in IT that will support nationwide green initiatives?  What technologies can deliver significant, long-term savings, while driving innovation?

One answer, according to a recent study by CDW-G, is energy efficient IT programs.

Snapshot of Energy Efficiency in Higher Ed

CDW-G’s recent Energy Efficient IT Report found that a growing number of U.S. organizations have or are developing programs to manage and reduce IT energy use.  Of the 152 higher education IT professionals surveyed in the group (in addition to Federal agencies, state and local governments and K-12 districts), 74 percent of institutions have or are developing programs to manage and reduce energy use in IT.

With these programs, institutions are realizing savings.  According to the 2010 findings, 61 percent of higher education IT managers have reduced IT energy costs by 1 percent or more, up from 54 percent in 2009 and just 39 percent in 2008.

Institutions are also considering data center consolidation in their green efforts, as 78 percent have or are developing a specific data center consolidation strategy.

The drivers behind data center consolidation coincide with reducing costs and focusing on the green IT push:  60 percent of institutions cite reducing expenditures on data center hardware, software and operations as the top driver for data center consolidation efforts; and 42 percent report that supporting a green initiative was the top driver.  Other drivers include reducing energy consumption (64 percent), increasing use of new and more efficient computing platforms (46 percent) and increasing IT security (36 percent).

In addition, IT professionals report that when making purchasing decisions for new equipment, energy efficiency is an important consideration.

As institutions look at energy efficient programs, they should follow their green peers, which include two Chicago universities that are at the forefront of energy efficient technology.

Chicago Universities Go Green

Loyola University

In 2007, Loyola University, a Chicago institution serving more than 15,000 students, began the process of virtualization for its first servers with the goal of reducing energy costs, increasing flexibility and reducing the university’s carbon footprint.

“Our IT needs surpassed our old data center’s capacity, and the cooling system was insufficient.  We also evaluated our disaster recovery plan, and we found improvements in our planning were required to recover from an IT failure,” said Susan Malisch, vice president and chief information officer for the university.

The university relocated and consolidated its data center from two older campus facilities, which could no longer support the computing requirements of the university, and deployed virtualized servers at a new location.  The new data center, which is about 2,000 square feet, has more than 350 servers, with 60 percent of them virtualized.  The consolidated data center also provides room for expansion.

The university’s IT staff collaborated with the facilities department to design the data center to ensure that each department had a clear picture of its energy consumption.

“The data center redesign has required us to work closely with facilities, which owns the power bill in our case.  This experience has been invaluable.  We both have a deeper understanding of our power use and can work together to make the space more efficient,” said Daniel Vonder Heide, director for infrastructure services at Loyola.

To fund its virtualization initiative, Loyola used its annual refresh budget.  Since the start of their efforts, the university has seen a 70 percent reduction in server costs.  Expenditures on software have also significantly declined.

In addition, virtualization has freed up funds for other innovative, cost-saving investments, such as the university’s implementation of an IBM storage controller, which simplifies the management of storage infrastructure.  This implementation was largely funded from refresh savings.

“Aside from tangible benefits like cost savings, virtualization has several intangible benefits like increased flexibility and improved disaster recovery.  Since deployment, we can now backup data at a higher speed, positioning us to reduce the risks of data loss in the event of an IT emergency,” said Malisch.

Loyola recently installed meters so that the institution can accurately track, measure and report energy consumption and use.

Three years into the program, the university continues to invest in new energy efficient technologies and plans to ensure that staff members are adequately trained to support the environment.

Saint Xavier University

Saint Xavier University, another Chicago institution which serves more than 5,000 students, also has a long history of green initiatives, even before the university considered energy efficiency in its data center.

“The university has a standing tradition of being environmentally conscious, so it was an easy decision to virtualize the data center,” said Daniel Lichter, director of data and network infrastructure at Saint Xavier.

In November 2008, as part of a campus-wide green push, and spurred on by aging servers and the potential to save money on energy costs, the university began researching green solutions for its data center, and engaged with CDW-G to identify the best options.

“We worked extensively with CDW-G’s virtualization team to identify the best solution for our needs.  They put together several options and recommended what would work best for us, which included server virtualization,” said Lichter.

The sever virtualization implementation reduced the number of physical servers from 50 to 20, and led to increased efficiency and reliability.  One of the most significant benefits of server virtualization is better utilization of server capacity, according to Lichter.

“Dedicated physical servers are constantly using power, even when they are not being utilized.  With virtualization, however, utilization only spikes during primary usage, which helps us reduce energy consumption,” he continued.

As part of the data center overhaul, the university replaced a 25-year-old air conditioning unit in the server room with a more efficient inter-cooling unit.  The old servers generated excessive heat, but with fewer servers to power and cool, server virtualization enables the university to reduce cooling costs.  The new unit also helps conserve energy and reduces downtime.

The initial server virtualization project helped the university make a case for a second energy efficient project in the data center.  The following year, the university updated its 8-year-old uninterruptible power supply (UPS).  The new UPS solution improves power efficiency by 30 percent.

As a result of virtualization and the UPS solution, the university estimates annual savings of $7,680 in energy and hardware costs.

Getting There

According to the CDW-G Energy Efficient IT Report, the most significant barriers to the adoption of more efficient technologies are related to both budget and the administration’s priorities for energy efficiency.

Despite budgets and other challenges, institutions are making the business case for energy efficient IT programs, and cost concerns may be more perception than reality.  According to the report’s findings, just 17 percent of IT managers said that they believe energy efficient IT equipment is cost prohibitive.

To make energy efficient programs a reality, CDW-G provides the following recommendations for higher education institutions:

  • Understand the potential for savings:  Institutions should look at energy-efficient IT investments as a way to realize long-term savings.  Identifying potential savings can help IT managers make the business case for these programs
  • Work with facilities:  It is critical that IT collaborate with facilities on data center redesigns.  Administrators and CIOs should encourage these departments to work together to clearly understand and define energy consumption upfront
  • Engage with vendors:  Institutions should look to vendor partners for guidance on a path forward, ways to allocate funding, implementation and on-site support.  A virtualization assessment can help identify the best and most cost-efficient solution for the institution
  • Measure effectiveness:  Institutions should consider leveraging no-cost EPA and Department of Energy programs to assess data center improvements and validate investments.  IT staff can install these tools to track efficiency metrics, and they should use these tracking tools as a part of the institution’s overall plan
  • Energy efficiency beyond the data center:  Training faculty and staff on energy efficient practices is simple and will help institutions realize savings and see a longer shelf life for IT equipment.  Encouraging faculty and IT staff to turn off their computers at the end of the day for instance, is a simple energy efficient practice that will provide long-term benefits

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Mark Lafferty is director of servers, storage, power and cooling for CDW, a leading provider of technology products and services for business, government, healthcare and education. Lafferty’s team of solutions architects and engineers ensure that CDW customers understand the full range of options and solutions available to optimize their data centers. Lafferty joined CDW in 1997 and has worked in a variety of positions, most recently leading the technical pre-sales teams which support sales, the IBM Unix practice and the storage, power and cooling division. Lafferty holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Illinois, and he is a proud board member of the Society for the Preservation of Human Dignity and a member of the Chicago Executive Club.

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