Rising fuel prices, carbon footprints and e-waste have grabbed the attention of state and local government leaders, causing many to turn their operations inside out to reach “green” goals. After installing compact fluorescent light bulbs and purchasing alternative fuel vehicles, some are attending to the power demands of computer equipment and data centers. Motivated by the desire to increase efficiency and save money on shrinking budgets, some governments have begun consolidating IT operations, thereby reducing heating, cooling and power needs. But, if greener IT changes are not carefully planned and commanded by top leaders, governments are in danger of overspending and unintentionally over polluting.
It’s not easy being green
The challenge of making green IT a priority begins with defining it. “Mayors are waking up to this emerging issue,” says Alan Shark, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology Institute. “They’re realizing they can’t wait for the federal government to make certain determinations, and they see this as something they possibly have some control over. But there is a lack of standards. It is a patchwork of different kinds of remedies.”
Green IT can mean buying hardware made with lower levels of hazardous materials, limiting the use of polluting energy sources or establishing an e-cycling program — or at least a conscientious computer disposal policy. But to most governments, “green” fits none of those descriptions.
A November research report on green data centers published by Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec included a public sector supplement that polled 250 respondents, 42 of which were state, city or county governments with at least 5,000 employees. The study asked data center managers to rank their green priorities, and more than half said the most important was increasing energy efficiency. “It’s pretty clear what the public sector thinks is green — it’s power consumption,” says Sean Derrington, director of storage management for Symantec’s Data Center Management Group.
While energy efficiency takes priority over end-of-life or recycling issues, implementing sound energy initiatives comes with a host of challenges. According to Shark, purchasing decisions and operational policies are chief among them. “Until recently, looking at Energy Star-rated equipment wasn’t necessarily part of any checklist,” he says. “But when we purchase, we need to have a better idea of what it is we’re getting, not just in terms of savings from performance, but energy performance.”
Shark points out that many governments are moving away from cathode ray tube (CRT) computer monitors to more efficient liquid crystal displays (LCD) or light-emitting diode (LED) displays. “In some cases, there may be a more than slight upfront cost, but the energy savings on some of this equipment is quite dramatic,” he says.
Symantec’s research revealed that although public sector data managers say energy efficiency is synonymous with green, they are not buying hardware based on a vendor’s record for low power consumption. Only fourteen percent of the public sector respondents said energy efficiency was an important criterion for vendor selection versus 30 percent of private sector companies.
The discrepancy between what governments say they believe and what they do in practice, Derrington says, can be attributed to the more rigid guidelines for government procurement. “We have some interesting disconnects in terms of many, many city agencies that may want to be more helpful and may be proactive but very often find themselves in a bureaucratic maze,” Shark says.
If the department responsible for purchasing more efficient equipment is not the same agency that buys the power, then those that buy the equipment ultimately have little stake in achieving long-term energy savings. “That is something we’re going to see that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” Shark says. “There’s no one governance model. There are cities that don’t even have an inventory in any one place of the buildings that they own and manage, and that becomes an issue.”
The green data center
Some data centers are being built with safeguards against bureaucratic confusion included in their blueprints. On Dec. 13, Oregon announced the completion of a multi-year State Data Center (SDC) consolidation project that combined data centers from 11 state agencies into one new building that serves 40,000 state employees.
The project, a collaboration with private vendors such as San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco, cost $43 million and has moved 1,500 servers onto one standard IBM platform and virtualized networks, servers and storage for all state agencies, bureaus and boards. The SDC provides network services not just to the state, but to counties and school districts as well.
Although operational efficiency led the charge to consolidate when the data center idea was on the drawing board in 2002, the rising costs of electricity have bumped energy savings up to the number-one reason for building it. The state was at a crossroads and had to decide whether to embark on significantly upgrading the 11 individual data centers or building a new one.
“A lot of the old data centers were just after-thought computer rooms added into regular office buildings, so they had very significant limitations in cooling capacity and energy-savings capacity,” says SDC Operations Manager Bryan Nealy. “This building from the ground up was designed paying particular attention to all those energy-savings components.”
The building is divided into three areas, with the office space in the front, and the infrastructure, such as generators and chilled water, in the back of the facility. “We built the data center [in the middle], so we’re able to focus the high-density cooling and power needs of [it] just to the core where it’s needed,” says SDC Administrator Mark Reyer.
Instead of running full-time chillers, which create cold air and use a great deal of energy, the SDC uses fans to re-circulate outside air from the mild Oregon climate to maintain an acceptable temperature on the data center floor. The rest of the building is managed as a normal office building and does not get lumped into the cost of cooling the data center. “All of those things that take power to produce cold air are big energy consumers at the data center, and all of those have been optimized as much as possible,” Nealy says.
By virtue of the building’s design, Oregon stands to save between 30 to 35 percent in power consumption over the old data centers, and Reyer and Nealy expect to save up to an additional 35 percent with technical conversions and consolidations, which include streamlining software on the servers and standardizing hardware, operating systems, configurations and library structures. Additionally, all the servers will be free of hard drives, so all storage for data applications, programs and operating systems will be moved to a server with 425 terabytes of tiered storage to provide server virtualization.
“None of the agencies on their own could afford a facility like this with all of the modern technologies and techniques,” Reyer says, “so by the state of Oregon doing it as a whole, all of those agencies, and ultimately the people of Oregon, will benefit.”
Order of operations
If large consolidation and construction projects seem insurmountable, state and local governments can go green in other ways. Setting simple operational policies about power use and configuring desktops and laptops to include power savings are painless bureaucratic maneuvers that can save big.
“It’s very easy for data center managers to push out energy consumption settings, so that on your laptop, if you’re inactive for five minutes, your monitor powers off,” Derrington says. “And maybe your laptop begins to power down the hard drive after 10 or seven minutes. Those are the things that are the quick hits and quick returns on energy consumption policies.”
According to the EPA’s Energy Star program, power management — such as turning off computers at night, lowering screen resolution and brightness to extend battery life, turning off Wi-Fi radio components or Bluetooth when not in use — can save $25 to $75 annually per computer. “I think you can accomplish a green computer by operational policies set up by your IT department,” Shark says. “When IT configures the equipment, they should be configuring it to include these kinds of power savings.”
Sacramento is bidding out an energy performance contract for city facilities to meet the demands of its sustainability master plan as well as the state’s global warming solutions legislation. Power management is one approach the city hopes to take to achieve those goals. “We have a difficult time getting people to turn off lights and computers at the end of the day,” says city Energy Manager Keith Roberts. “My boss asked me if there was a way to equate that to something that people actually care about. If we were diligent about turning our computers off at night and turning the lights off at night, we calculated we could purchase one additional desktop every two months.”
Roberts is working with the IT department on computer software that can shut down computers, or at least monitors, at night. “I do my informal surveys every night and look at people’s lights and laptops when I leave, and probably 10 percent to 20 percent of those computers are left on, and a good portion of lights are left on,” he says.
To help guide governments toward power-reduction solutions with detailed return-on-investment evaluations of habits and computer equipment, PTI is working with Watertown, Mass.-based The Cadmus Group to offer green IT audits. “[Green IT] is a noble goal, and it should be pursued through all its different avenues,” Shark says. “But it’s something that’s going to require somebody sewing this quilt together, with a better comprehensive picture of how savings could be recognized.”
Lynn Peisner is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.
Beyond Energy Star
The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) is a system large purchasers can use to ensure the computer desktops, laptops and monitors they buy meet a minimum of 23 criteria developed by the Zero Waste Alliance, which is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, and based on the IEEE 1680 public standard.
Manufacturers pay a fee to EPEAT to carry the certification, which is routinely verified by the organization. An EPEAT bronze rating is given to products that meet the 23 criteria; a silver rating requires the 23 criteria plus 14 optional criteria; and a gold rating is given to products meeting 23 required criteria as well as 21 optional criteria.
Some of the basic EPEAT components require products to be upgradable with common tools, such as memory drives, chips and cards; to be made out of recycled plastic materials; and to operate on batteries that are free of lead, cadmium and mercury. Products also must comply with the Energy Star program and be built for easier recycling.
San Jose, Calif., was the first city to specify that all its computers have EPEAT ratings and has purchased more than 2,000 EPEAT-rated computers and monitors since March 2006. Through the purchases, the city reduced its electrical use by 803,000 kilowatt hours (KWh), which equates to 75 average U.S. households per year, according to the EPA.
And, although Phoenix already was committed to a computer contract, the city trained procurement staff members last year on how to buy EPEAT computers when they could and ensured all future purchases would have EPEAT ratings. The city has bought 3,253 desktops and 247 laptops since last year, resulting in a power savings equivalent to running 238 average U.S. homes, the EPA reports.
— Lynn Peisner
- Data centers consumed about 60 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2006, roughly 1.5 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption.
- The energy consumption of servers and data centers has doubled in the past five years and is expected to almost double again in the next five years to more than 100 billion kWh, costing about $7.4 billion annually.
- Federal servers and data centers use approximately 6 billion kWh (10 percent) of that electricity use, at a total electricity cost of about $450 million per year.
- Existing technologies and strategies could reduce typical server energy use by an estimated 25 percent, with even greater energy savings possible with advanced technologies.
SOURCE: EPA report on server and data center efficiency, August 2007