Sharon Blanton of Portland State University says small green IT projects can add up: "We're estimating an annual savings of $15,000 from replacing CRTs."

Oct 01 2010

Campus IT Goes Green One Step at a Time

Campus IT departments are making big sustainability gains by pursuing multiple green projects that add up.

Campus IT departments are making big sustainability gains by pursuing multiple green projects that add up.

For many green IT innovators, the path to sustainability is a journey of a thousand steps.

Instead of one big and expensive initiative, many campuses are pursuing a host of smaller projects – from virtualizing desktops to installing ultra-efficient in-row server rack cooling systems.

One example is Portland State University (PSU), a 29,000-student institution with a significant commuter population located in the heart of Oregon's largest city.

Because sustainability is codified in the university's ­mission statement, CIO Sharon Blanton says all carbon-reduction efforts are equally important, including minimizing travel to and from campus.

"By virtualizing our roughly 550 computer lab seats, we'll eliminate the need for a student to drive to campus just to use a single application," Blanton says.

As part of its formal sustainability master plan, the IT department is replacing approximately 1,000 legacy desktops with more energy-efficient computers.

"People can select either a desktop or notebook, but they must turn in an old machine to receive a new one," Blanton says.

"We're not only saving energy, but also the staffing required for keeping outdated equipment running," Blanton adds. "For further maintenance and updating efficiencies, we're also limiting the types of new machines and their configurations."

Green Servers

Server virtualization is another major green project at PSU, begun in 2009 using VMware. Because virtualization makes it possible to create new servers without adding physical boxes, PSU can add capacity without building a new data center.

In addition, server virtualization allows PSU to overcome a traditional challenge in higher education IT: the proliferation of independently owned departmental servers. By offering hosting packages that range from simple raw capacity to complete administrative services, five departments have already agreed to sign up.

"We've promoted the packages as reducing upfront hardware investments, saving on operating costs and improving alignment with our institutional mission and goals," Blanton says.

With so much attention on institutional sustainability, even outsourcing choices are affected. Blanton says PSU now asks each service provider to submit a sustainability plan, which is evaluated for how well it fits into PSU's overall program.

PSU's other two initiatives, replacing CRTs with LCDs and using remote management software to power down data projectors during off hours, are both smaller projects that net significant rewards.

"Small projects add up," Blanton adds. "For example, we're estimating an annual savings of $15,000 from replacing the CRTs. Plus, for users, there's the 'cool factor' of receiving new equipment and knowing we've recycled thousands of pounds of outdated technology. This generates excitement for future green IT programs."

Small Is Beautiful

Industry experts validate the importance of an incremental approach to greening IT.

"Turning off lights in the data center or changing air vent direction to cool more effectively can net significant benefits," says Mark Sheehan, a fellow at the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR).

Chicago's Saint Xavier University (SXU) is another school that's taking little steps to save big.

Now in the final phase of a multiyear data center overhaul, the 5,000-student university expects more than $1,550 in annual electricity cost savings from just one tiny project component – localized server rack cooling.

SXU replaced an aging 8-ton perimeter unit with APC's modular InRow RD air-cooled solution, which places cooling within the server rack, in proximity to the heat load, thereby reducing hot spots that are endemic to today's high-­performance rack-mounted servers. "Cooled air is produced precisely where it's needed by the servers," points out Dan Lichter, director of data and network infrastructure at SXU.

The university also replaced a legacy uninterruptible power supply system with a new APC Symmetra PX modular system, a project that promotes sustainability while boosting data center resiliency. "The new UPS is 30 percent more efficient than the previous solution, translating into an electricity cost savings of $6,100 annually," Lichter says.

A new remote monitoring and notification system, which includes a NetBotz Rack Monitor 450 environmental monitoring device with a NetBotz Camera Pod 160 webcam, has replaced the data center's single thermostat. In addition to receiving automatic text alerts from the monitoring device, data center technicians can use the webcam to observe the interior of the data center from anywhere, making it easier to pinpoint the source of an issue.

From more efficient cooling to a major virtualization initiative, Saint Xavier University's green IT projects are in lockstep with the college's sustainability goals, says Dan Lichter.

Photo Credit: Callie Lipkin

"The new system gives our five-person IT infrastructure team the ability to detect and resolve issues before users are affected," Lichter says.

Not surprisingly, the data center overhaul also included a large sustainability component – reducing 25 physical machines to three ProLiant DL380 servers from HP virtualized with VMware. Additionally, an HP DL360 server running VMware vCenter was deployed to automate data center operations, and HP Lefthand SAN nodes were installed for storage consolidation.

Moving forward, SXU plans to upgrade to the next generation of HP servers and repurpose existing machines to create a distant disaster recovery failover site, which will include power, cooling and remote monitoring equipment similar to what's in the main data center.

"Now we have the fault tolerance to withstand power disruptions from frequent Midwestern events such as thunderstorms," Lichter says. "Plus, we're more agile and efficient because our new environment permits us to provision systems faster. And everything we did in IT runs in parallel to our institutional sustainability plans and goals."

The Next Green Wave

ECAR's Sheehan sees desktop power management as another green trend. "While shutting down an individual PC may have minimal impact, multiplied by thousands it's significant," he points out.

Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, is one school turning to such technology. The 1,600-student private liberal arts institution's impending desktop power management initiative is the logical next step after more than a decade of IT greening.

"At this time, during the school year, only one-third of our 1,200 desktops get powered down regularly, and then only on weekends," acknowledges William Francis, Grinnell's ITS director. "With desktop power management, we anticipate it will rise to as much as 80 percent."

Grinnell also expects added IT efficiency benefits. "For instance, we push out updates regularly, but they can only be applied when a computer powers up," Francis notes. "For those who never shut off their machines, the updates simply pile up."

Another incremental initiative, a print-release system, is expected to save Grinnell roughly 1,000 reams of paper annually. Public printer users – including students – will be required to complete a "release" step for printing to initiate. In addition, the system provides feedback on the total number of pages printed. "The system will bring the green issue forward with every print job," Francis asserts.

Next up: desktop virtualization. "The technology offers significant possibilities for cutting power usage as well as performing remote upgrades and fixes," Francis says.


The estimated reduction in power consumption achieved using a virtualized desktop environment versus the traditional desktop client-server approach

Source: Gartner

A Formal Plan

Colorado College recently enhanced its already impressive sustainability efforts by creating a formal structure that includes a sustainability office, a sustainability council and various working groups comprising staff, faculty and students.

CC's 30-person IT department has always played an important role. "We were one of the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of campuswide sustainability projects," says Randy Stiles, the college's vice president for information management. As one of the campus's sustainability leaders, IT has garnered added credibility for pursuing other green initiatives.

To identify and accomplish projects, the IT department created its own sustainability framework. CC recognizes four dimensions of sustainability: social, environmental, economic and emergency preparedness. For every IT project, CC develops measurable strategies, goals, policies and procedures around each dimension, because they are equally important, Stiles says.

As a result, the college has had considerable success. "Although there's been tremendous growth in the 10 technology trends we track, we're staffed at approximately the same level as a decade ago," Stiles explains. "And the central IT budget, as a percentage of the overall institutional budget, has declined. Our sustainability initiatives and the framework we established have played a key role."

Tips for Going Green

  • Take a campuswide leadership role. Leadership builds respect, improves credibility and develops good will, all of which can be tapped to help a green idea become reality.
  • Celebrate success. People love to hear how they've contributed, which gets them excited and energized.
  • Involve as many stakeholders as possible. Drawing from all constituencies – staff, faculty, students and even the surrounding community – keeps everyone invested in a project's success.
  • Establish formal plans with measurable goals. Without plans and goals, it's impossible to quantify progress.
  • Pay attention to ROI. Fund only those initiatives that offer real financial rewards.
  • Harvest low-hanging fruit. Numerous small initiatives can add up to thousands of dollars in savings.
<p>Susan Seubert</p>