Certification Goes Green

It’s the picture of modern simplicity: Neat rows of trim workstations run lengthwise across the room. Each compact booth, sectioned off from the next with adjustable grey partitions, is equipped with a small-form factor computer, flat screen monitor, plush headset and rolling desk chair. There is no clutter, no extraneous furniture. The walls and carpet, both taupe, are smooth and sleek.

Apart from the ficus in the waiting room, this particular academic testing center might not look or feel very “green.” But it certainly operates that way.

Opened in Baltimore in March 2007 by Prometric, a testing and assessment services provider, the complex is the company’s first environmentally friendly testing facility. Hailed as the “test center of the future,” its calculated design and power-efficient IT devices save Prometric an estimated 40 percent on energy bills.

“We’ve been committed to making these changes,” said Alison Indrisano, COO of Prometric. “Building our model center in Baltimore was a great first start because we could see the impact of the changes.”

The test center also features a flexible design that allows for more workstations to be added quickly and at a minimal cost, and Prometric is contemplating a furniture buy-back program to expand recycling. Additionally, staff members now are required to obtain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accreditation.

The idea for the center, which took six months to develop and spans 3,000 square feet, came from Prometric’s involvement with the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization committed to championing sustainable building practices. Since its opening just more than a year ago, the green facility has hosted more than 5,000 test takers.

“It’s been successful,” Indrisano said. “Not only does it have a sleek design and professional-looking feel, but it’s [also] comfortable for candidates.”

As far as guinea pigs go, this one has been a success. It’s proven that “going green” is not a fad. Instead, it’s a viable, even necessary, business move.

“There are two things that prompted the whole interest in green: driving energy costs and the debate around global warming,” said Kim Stevenson, vice president of the communications, media and entertainment industry group at EDS, a business outsourcing firm. “Particularly, though, the rising energy cost has really become a factor in how IT operations run. Fifty percent of your cost to operate a data center is electricity now. It becomes a huge concern.”

Companies have reached a point where they can no longer simply negotiate rates with vendors because energy consumption and cost are eclipsing rate reductions, Stevenson added.

“So you have to think about how you are going to consume that resource differently,” she said, adding that, in this sense, “green” can take on two meanings. “It can be good for the environment but also good for the company’s bottom line.”

A recent report by Gartner Inc. predicted that rising energy costs, along with climate change and additional environmental regulations, will force IT management teams to deal with the green issue whether it’s en vogue or not.

“We believe it represents the start of a significant and material change,” wrote Simon Mingay in the December 2007 report. “One thing is certain: The ‘business as usual model’ is now widely accepted as being completely unsustainable and will not continue.”

But for many IT managers, knowing where to start can be tricky and overwhelming. The Prometric example, with its multifaceted and fully integrated green platform, can be intimidating. According to Mark Bramfitt, principal program manager at energy provider Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), confusion when first approaching going green is an understandable reaction.

“I think, to some extent, there’s too much information for people to choose from,” he said.

This might lead some corporations to think that greening their operations will require a total overhaul. But in reality, becoming more eco-friendly typically consists of small changes over a period of time, said Dileep Bhandarkar, an engineer at Microsoft who is in charge of infrastructure architecture and standards for global foundation services.

“It’s something you have to do on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “You take lots of these little pieces, and you add them up to things that can be pretty huge.”

To make that process a little easier, we’ve broken down the four major trends in green IT: energy efficiency, power management, virtualization and design. Integrating any or all of these techniques will result in more efficient and less costly operation in the long run, putting your organization on the green map.

Energy Efficiency

Data centers are notoriously wasteful when it comes to power. Studies show that about half of all energy is squandered.

The main culprits are power conversion and inefficient motherboards, said John Carr, an engineer for Intel Corp.

Right off the bat, a computer must convert AC wall power to DC power to use it, resulting in between 65 and 70 percent efficiency, he said. The motherboard further complicates things by taking the newly created DC power and converting it again for use in the processor, memory, hard drive and other internal components. This results in about 75 percent energy efficiency in motherboards.

“If you do the math, 65 percent efficiency times 75 percent efficiency — which is how you get the overall system efficiency — [is] about 48 or 49 percent efficient,” Carr explained. “So about half of the power that goes into a computer from the wall gets wasted in heat.”

He added that while servers are slightly more efficient than desktops, there still is plenty of room for improvement.

With so much heat being released within data centers, more energy — and therefore more money — is expended on cooling systems. Microsoft engineer Dileep Bhandarkar explained that in live data centers, power use efficiency hovers between 1.5 and 2, meaning for every watt of power consumed by the server box, there’s another half-watt or watt being consumed in conversion and cooling.

The technology for more efficient computers is available — it just costs more. That’s why Intel and Google banded together in 2007 to found the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a nonprofit organization aimed at expanding awareness and implementation of green IT. The theory is that increased awareness will create more demand, which in turn will lower the premium on more efficient products.

“One of the challenges in the industry has been that power supplies are a relatively cheap component in a PC,” said PG&E’s Mark Bramfitt. “And to drive costs down, you can use fairly low-efficient power supplies. We’re trying to transform the whole personal computer industry by getting people to start putting high-efficiency power supplies in PCs.”

Climate Savers has about 150 corporate members — including Microsoft and PG&E — and thousands of individuals who pledge to reduce their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions through power efficiency and management.

“We expect that the price premium for meeting the high-efficiency target ratings in any year will decline toward zero over time,” Climate Savers stated in its November 2007 white paper. “Even at modestly higher prices, more efficient computing systems will pay for themselves in reduced energy costs.”

The organization reasons that saving just 20 to 30 watts of power on a desktop computer that is turned on 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year can translate into a savings of $7.20 each year. The data center also will save on cooling costs, bringing the total to $10 a year.

“At a cost premium of less than $20 for PCs and less than $30 for servers, this additional efficiency will pay for itself in 2 to 3 years,” the white paper stated.

To make finding these products easier, Climate Savers publishes a regular catalog of Energy Star and other energy-efficient equipment.

Power Management

One of the simplest and cheapest ways an IT facility can save on energy bills is to activate power management software that allows users to put their computers to sleep when inactive. Although installed on almost every PC sold today, this software often is manually deactivated.

“PCs or even notebooks are left on overnight so that IT [pros] can do network patches, software patches, updates — whatever the case may be,” Carr explained.

But recent technology, such as Microsoft’s Vista or Intel’s vPro, allows IT pros to access a network computer and wake it up if a patch needs to be deployed. The engineer can then power the computer back down when the upgrade has completed.

“We estimate that in the business world, enabling that software, or installing that software, can save customers about 200 kilowatt-hours a year per PC,” Bramfitt said. “In our area — northern California — [that] equates to almost $30 of annual savings.”

For this reason, PG&E offers incentives to customers for using power management software, and Climate Savers has included it in its pledge.

Virtualization

The low utilization rate of servers has two major impacts on a company’s bottom line: higher equipment costs and higher energy costs due to increased distribution. Virtualization allows multiple applications to run securely on one server.

“The knock-on effect of virtualization is that you get lower electricity costs on top of higher asset utilization,” said EDS’ Kim Stevenson.

Physical consolidation is the first step. Rather than having four two-way processors operating at 10 percent capacity in their own boxes, Stevenson said, you can put them on the single dual-core processor in one box and achieve 50 or 60 percent utilization. EDS research indicated that utilization can reach 80 or 90 percent in some cases.

Until now, this consolidation was impossible, since each application must run separate from the data associated with it to avoid corruption. Virtualization technology such as VMWare or Microsoft Virtual Server creates a logical partition, as well as prioritizes activity just like a physical server, Stevenson said.

“You think, ‘OK, now I have only one thing to manage, one physical thing — not four,’” she said. “So there are some benefits in that in terms of the cost of operating: I have one place I’m sending my electricity to; physically there’s less cabling.”

That’s not to say virtualization doesn’t come with challenges. Peak load times can get those typically underutilized servers up to full capacity, for example.

“What you really have to do is understand the type of work you have and when those peak loads are,” Stevenson said. “If everybody has the same busy peak period, the work’s going to get hung up and go really slow.”

The solution is to use application rationalization to find complementary work environments, she said. So, rather than having extra servers or building special IT environments for peak periods, different departments or even separate businesses with different peak periods can share resources.

“Finding those complements, both inside companies or even when you move to an outsourced environment, that’s where it becomes more challenging,” Stevenson said.

Design

Greening your business doesn’t just mean improving the technical aspects. It also includes the site selection, design and recycling capabilities.

“In picking sites for where we put our data centers, we pick sites wherever possible where there is green energy available,” Microsoft’s Bhandarkar said.

The floor plan utilized by Prometric’s Baltimore test center, which allows for additional workstations without more building, is also an eco-friendly option, as is its space-saving furniture.

“This provides not only a sleeker test center look and feel but offers candidates more available desktop space,” Indrisano said.

It’s also important to factor in airflow considerations when designing a data center, said Stevenson. Since so much energy is expended in cooling a data center, organizations need to maximize the effect of airflow.

“We’ve arranged our data centers into these hot-cold aisles, so we don’t get hot spots in the data center that cause overheating of a particular server,” Stevenson said. “The air comes up out of the bottom of the floor, and of course heat rises, so it’s taking that natural flow of heat rising and pushing it further.”

All of this, she added, “requires a little bit more planning.”

Another related issue is recycling, which Prometric, EDS and other companies have been playing with. According to the December 2007 Gartner report, IT organizations should set up recycling plans when they first purchase their IT equipment, which should be environmentally friendly hardware in the first place.

Additionally, “IT organizations looking to set a more progressive environmental agenda should look at how they can increase material efficiency by using less equipment or more materially efficient equipment and by extending the life of the equipment they need,” according to the report.

Looking Ahead

The success of its Baltimore test center has prompted Prometric to plan green centers in Europe and many other areas in the U.S. With a little more time and research, the company hopes to use more natural lighting in these future centers and integrate other eco-friendly practices, such as developing a furniture buy-back program.

“We feel responsible for following and embracing these standards to be environmentally friendly,” Indrisano said. “[Implementing these practices] will be exciting, and our clients are excited about seeing those changes.”

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com
 

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