Jul 02 2009

Embracing Green Technology at Rice Unviersity

IT departments can be strong catalysts in a university's sustainability program.

IT departments can be strong catalysts in a university’s sustainability program.

Analysis, collaboration and awareness: These are words that help put our efforts into perspective as we research innovations and review opportunities to deploy green technologies. As the cost of energy soars, the need to identify and implement creative technologies is vital — and the IT department can and must play a leadership role.

At Rice University, we address these challenges as part of our annual planning. For starters, at our computer labs, we established a 3- to 4-year replacement cycle for academic computing, which ensures that computers stay up to date in terms of energy performance.

Our flat-panel displays and existing computers meet at least Energy Star 3 standards. Computers purchased in the past two years meet Energy Star 4 standards and are 80 Plus–certified. They are also equipped with Intel vPro and Active Management Technology, which enables remote and programmable control of power states.

We have also deployed client management software to administer power management policies, and all students are encouraged to print using duplex-capable printers. We are also in the process of investigating desktop virtualization as an alternative to open laboratory systems.

On the research computing front, our goal is to replace legacy systems. For example, we recently replaced our 264-core research cluster with a new 752-core cluster. Rice selected a green blade-server approach with a higher node density, and 90 percent–plus efficient power supplies that promise a power reduction of 20 percent or more compared with its competitors and a significantly larger power reduction compared with its predecessor.

Virtual Environment

At Rice, virtualization merely for the sake of being green is not a driver for change, but it nonetheless offers significant benefits. The marginal cost savings for power and cooling that virtualization offers do not make it a compelling change strategy, but as we refresh our hardware, it only makes sense for us to optimize our compute cycles per kilowatt and BTU. Virtualization provides an achievable gain in heat and power reduction over time across all computer users on campus. During the past 18 months, many of our old and new applications have been migrated to a virtual server farm.

Virtualization also helps us consolidate our servers, which may offer the highest cost savings. Virtual servers allow us to consolidate services from poorly optimized hardware resources. This lets us segregate operating systems and access, an approach that improves security. Benefits go well beyond resource optimization and cascade into business continuity and disaster recovery. Server virtualization can greatly reduce the recovery time due to server hardware failures. For those who rely on key performance indicators, such as mean time between failures and uptime, the benefits are great.

There are also process streamlining improvements for bringing new services online, providing testing and development environments that are ideal for virtual servers. Virtualization also requires that we re-architect dependent resources, such as data centers, networking, service delivery and support, so they are more virtualization-friendly. Virtualization must be achieved by balancing consolidation with overall complexity, which demands care when determining which virtual machines should run on the same hardware. As hardware manufacturers optimize their systems for vitualization, even high I/O services such as e-mail and databases could enjoy considerably fewer challenges.

Green Business

Another major project for us is our e-procurement campus initiative. On the technology side, the process advocates technology standards, investment in green and efficient technology and integration of asset management into the procurement process. Our IT staff is leading an effort to route all its divisional procurement activity through this web interface. The IT department will then work in collaboration with the community in recommending multiple choices on the market as well as building awareness across campus.

IT departments at colleges and universities have two choices. They can ignore the present green wave and wait until running the old systems becomes so cost-prohibitive that it eventually leads them to implement green initiatives. Or, they can embrace green technologies now by playing a leadership role and managing change in a way that complements the department’s staff and budget. Taking a proactive approach just makes sense at a time when universities are struggling to balance legitimate financial issues with a concern for the environment.