Jeffrey Fritz
Jun 03 2010

Building Green Networks

Colleges are extending their green IT programs beyond the data center to network wire rooms.

Greening the data center has become an important focus for IT managers. And that's as it should be. Data centers use a great deal of power and have large carbon footprints. But if a higher education IT department really wants to go green, it needs to start thinking beyond the data center – and that includes network wire rooms. The wire rooms are easy to overlook. After all, they are small and numerous, and are distributed across the campus. But the truth is that most colleges have many more wire rooms than data centers.

Challenge and Opportunity

At the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), we have nearly 700 wire rooms. The aggregated space and total carbon footprint of our campus wire rooms easily match or even exceed that of the data center. Combined, network wire rooms can gobble up as much or more energy than the average data center, presenting IT with both a challenge and a great opportunity.

For college IT managers, wire room space, HVAC capabilities and power are in short supply. At UCSF, for example, many of the wire rooms are small and overcrowded. Some are so packed with equipment that they have become overheated, HVAC-starved and power hungry. UCSF colleges and departments bear the costs, ranging from $90,000 to $150,000, for wire-room upgrades. This is in stark contrast to the UCSF campus data center.

This past year, UCSF built a modern campus data center. We took pains to install the greenest, most power-efficient servers. In fact, power consumption and HVAC efficiency were primary design considerations. But when it came to the 10 Gigabit Ethernet network gear that serves the data center, we dropped in the same power-hungry, heat-generating equipment that's been deployed on campus for years.

There really isn't much logic to this approach. As is often the case with data center upgrades, when our data center was built, there wasn't much thought given to greening the network rooms. This is hardly a move in the right direction if we want to be environmentally friendly, energy efficient and cost effective.

How UCSF Is Going Green

Extending a green approach beyond the data center to the wire rooms takes more than a commitment to buy green network equipment. It requires a new business model and a complete culture change. It includes taking the time to establish priorities, develop strategic partnerships and write RFPs that specify green network devices. It also requires educating our IT staff and our campus users by emphasizing the value of investing in green IT.

At UCSF, we started by changing how we think about our networks. This change isn't happening only within the university's IT department; we are reaching out to other campus organizations as well. We have linked arms with UCSF's procurement department to change the way we purchase network devices. We took an important first step this spring when we released an RFP for network equipment that offered vendors extra quality points if the equipment that they proposed met green criteria.

We also joined forces with UCSF's capital programs department to specify green networks for new buildings and major renovations. Along with incorporating more efficient HVAC, lighting and other equipment, these projects now include greener, more efficient wire rooms. We are also working in concert with our facilities management department to identify operational savings in power consumption.

And, we are leveraging PG&E power rebates as an incentive for being green. In 2005, the University of California, California State University and four large investor-owned utilities (including PG&E) banded together to create the UC/CSU/IOU Energy Efficiency Partnership, which provides financial incentives for energy efficiency projects deployed at the university.

The program includes energy-efficient retrofits, power consumption monitoring, training and education. The incentives paid for the project implementation cost in less than two years. That's a strong return on investment. Other colleges and universities could benefit greatly from discussing this kind of program with their local power company.

Why Green Networks?

There are several reasons why colleges and universities should build green networks. One is to be good citizens in the community, second is to improve the IT services we offer and third is to save our universities money.

These are all good reasons. However, in California, we now have a more pragmatic incentive. Last February, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order that focuses on future improvements to the state's IT operations and standardizes its governance. The order instructs state IT organizations to reduce their energy usage 30 percent by 2012. This is a significant reduction, and 2012 is just around the corner.

Ideally, network manufacturers and vendors will help us achieve this goal by designing and supplying green devices that offer more capabilities with a much smaller carbon footprint. Campus wire rooms would then accommodate new equipment with ease. IT teams would add ports, features and additional network capabilities while reducing the institution's carbon footprint. But this is not yet the world that most campus IT operations inhabit, so we need to work to change this status quo networking model.

The push for change is sorely needed. As other states and local governments grapple with their own budget woes, it's likely that such calls for reductions in energy use will be forthcoming at many colleges. That being said, maybe now is the time to find ways to reduce energy use and become greener – one wiring closet at a time.