Thursday, February 14, 2008

Green is the new Black

Many IT departments are instigating their own green initiatives in response to concerns of global-warming, green-house gases and dependence on foreign oil. We are finding that, in IT, being eco-friendly green can lead to monetary green, too.

If you're not familiar with the concept of a data center, its a facility ranging from the size of a closet to several large buildings where servers, disks, phone systems and network components are lined up. The floors are often raised so that you can get underneath to feed cable through. There is a hum that is a combination of air conditioning, fans and spinning disks. While we think of this as something large corporation have, it's standard for medium-sized business and some small business too.

The problem is all that equipment draws a lot of electricity. It also gives off a lot of heat, hence the air conditioning. Even in our region, where outside temperatures rarely warrant inside cooling, we have air conditioning running all the time. The air conditioning draws a lot of electricity itself. It is generally accepted that the cost to power and cool a server over its life will exceed its purchase price. Outside of the data center desktops, laptops and monitors consume a reasonable amount of power considering that they sit idle most of the day. Don't forget the energy to build and deliver the equipment and the nasty, nasty stuff inside that makes it all work.

I've assembled a list of GreenIT links at my site In particular, let me highly recommend Dave Ohara's article called Build a Green Datacenter in the October 2007 Technet magazine (a podcast interview is here) and his blog Green Data Center Blog. When you're done reading Dave's article you'll wonder if you weren't reading an accounting magazine. Welcome to corporate IT - it's not about the tech, it's about helping the business. A few thoughts that occur to me as I scan the articles:
  • Data centers, even small ones, are expensive to site, power and cool. The information needs of the organization, however, mean there won't be a decrease in the growth in IT equipment. Green IT can help to mitigate that cost.
  • The greening of IT crosses a wide range of occupations (and education levels): chip and power supply designers, network administrators, electricians and HVAC specialist to name a few.
  • There is a place in the industry for people who want to work with computers and want to do something good for the planet. In fact, there are now emerging specializations devoted specifically to greening IT.
  • IT professional who can demonstrate business acumen, technology knowledge and analytical skills is going to be able to make a name for themselves in the corporation.
In terms of education, three opportunities strike me as valuable. The first is the exercise of developing of a Green IT business case. Without having to implement technology, a student can go through the process of estimating costs and benefits; investigating and selecting technology; and building the business case. A student can demonstrate math concepts, critical thinking and analysis, use of office productivity tools and presentation skills. Could make for a good senior project.

The second is server virtualization, a technology that allows one physical server to run multiple logical servers, called a virtual machine (VM). Virtualization allows each VM to share memory, disk and processor of the underlying physical server so each is used to its fullest extent. It's the computing equivalent of only running your clothes washer when you have a full load, except it allows you to wash whites and reds at the same time (without everything being pink). It also saves a ton of space and reduces cooling demands. At the City, for instance, about 40% of our servers are virtual. As a result we have been able to avoid costly expansion of the server room and climate control systems. Virtualization needs to be included any networking and server administration programs at the college level.

The final opportunity comes at the desktop by using the PC's power management and Wake-on-LAN capability. Think about it, the average work PC is used at best 8 to 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. However, at many organizations like mine we don't want the PCs shutdown at night because we have automated scans, downloads and updates running. It is possible to put the computer into a low-power mode, then send it a signal to wake up, run its maintenance and go back to sleep. It too should already be on the agenda for desktop management programs.

It would be great to hear stories from practicing professionals about their use of these or other green techniques in the data center and on the desktop. What Green IT skills do you think would help a student in the job marketplace? What topics and/or classes would encourage you or your staff to get back in the classroom?

Image Citation: P1000990 by Ronnie Garcia under Creative Commons Share-Alike license.


Corey Smith said...

If Dilbert is making fun of server virtualization it must be important. See the comic on February 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th,