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August 3, 2009

The Big Green

The UK’s legally binding ‘carbon budgets’ require a reduction in greenhouse gases of 34% by 2020. IT has its role to play. Kevin White reports.

By CBR Staff Writer

Less than 10% of e-waste is recycled, yet smart energy applications help balance power consumption with real-time needs. IT’s carbon footprint is set to triple in the next 10 years, yet telecommuting is helping conserve fossil fuels by reducing travel. Technology may be part of the problem, but it is also key to solving the sustainability challenge.

At the root of the problem is waste. “Green is really about efficiency,” says Cisco’s VP of innovation, Rick Hutley. If an organisation is running with business processes that are taking longer to complete than they should, or involve more people that they could, or use more computing power than they really ought to, then it is using more energy than it needs. “By definition, that inefficiency leads to more energy usage, which causes a higher Green impact than we ideally want or need.”

The Cisco line is that IT can be used to reduce business inefficiency through process automation and technologies like videoconferencing and telepresence, but also that IT can be more ‘Green’ itself. “For an average enterprise, 27% of CO2 emissions come from the data centre, and of that some 70% is due to energy consumption,” Hutley reminds us. Inefficiency has an impact on cost, will lead to poor customer satisfaction and increases the size of the carbon footprint.

His theme resonates well with the CIO. Peter Dew, CIO and Group HR Director at CEVA Logistics says, “It would be misleading to say that CEVA has a well-described Green IT strategy. While it’s honourable, Green IT for the sake of it just isn’t going to cut it. It’s much more sensible to look at the issue of sustainability from the standpoint of economics and operational efficiency.”

CEVA has implemented a number of changes in its IT infrastructure that together have helped significantly reduce the company’s power utilisation and its carbon footprint. It has consolidated its data centre to facilities supplied by SCC and implemented virtualisation, introducing latest HP ‘C’ Class blade servers to drive a 32% reduction in power use in the data centre. That move has helped save nearly 105,000 kWh a year. The logistics company has also migrated to TFT PCs from older more power-hungry CRT screens, saving 37% on the electricity bill for each monitor. It has also introduced centralised management of the company’s 1,600 PCs, which are now configured for sleep mode if left unattended for more than 30 minutes.

Eradicating waste

Rather than being part of any Green grand design though, Dew considers these moves just another element of a broad business strategy of Lean management. “It’s all about eradicating waste,” he says. “Lean techniques as invented by Toyota are practised under an umbrella of operational excellence. We have some well-constructed processes that have been applied in our warehouses, in the freight processes, in our head office and in some elements of the IT function, and they are all part of a culture of continuous improvement.”

There may be no beginning and no end to initiatives like these which aim to improve overall business efficiency and operational effectiveness, but for many IT shops knowing where to start with Green IT has been a problem.

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“A first stop has to be measurement,” offers Alan Priestley of The Green Grid not-for-profit consortium. “We need to understand what IT is consuming before we can start to make improvements.”

But for all sorts of reasons, that is not always easy. “Facilities and IT don’t always talk to each other, so on a purely practical level it’s been difficult for IT to know how to start with energy reduction schemes because there is no visibility of the electricity bill. One other complaint has been over metrics, but we’ve made good progress with these – though we do need to get more people to start measuring.”

Priestley is referring to metrics available since 2007 known as Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and Data Centre Efficiency (DCE). These are measures intended to help businesses estimate the energy efficiency of their data centres, compare the results against other data centres, and determine if any energy efficiency improvements need to be made. But while there are metrics for the data centre infrastructure, equivalents for desktops and smaller servers are less well developed. New power-efficiency specifications that cover PCs and PC-related devices have only just been published by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Its new Energy Star 5.0 specification is proposed as helping businesses identify the most power-efficient laptops, desktops and monitors.

Testing, testing

For Roger Bearpark, assistant head of ICT at the London Borough of Hillingdon, such schemes are only a starting point in ICT power efficiency appraisals. “We test everything ourselves. From experience I’d say that a manufacturer’s figures on power consumption should be viewed only as guidance. We have found that there can be variations of up to 40% in some cases, when we run a system in our test environment.”

Hillingdon has created a sustainable IT environment by replacing its disparate array of servers and storage hardware with a greener virtual environment, it has reviewed the way it manages remote support for teleworkers, and it has added small power-sensing blocks that shut down desktop peripherals like lamps and phone chargers once a local PC is turned off. “We always consider the impact on the carbon footprint of what we install and how it is managed, and we always assess the green credentials of our suppliers. Our approach to Green IT is always backed with facts and figures, and we are continually reassessing our options.”

A good example is thin client, he notes. “We have never really been sold on the idea” Bearpark explains, “because we felt it caused far more power to be used in the data centre than what was being saved at the desktop. The technology has improved to the point now though, that it does become to look viable. The efficiency of latest generation servers is very impressive.”

The concept of centralising desktop functions with Citrix and Terminal Server has been around for a decade, but some additional technologies have came onto the market since 2007 that manage the connection of a PC or thin client to a fully functioning Windows virtual machine centralised in the data centre. The virtual desktop infrastructure (or VDI) used to host and virtualise desktop applications can be served by power-efficient boxes such as the HP Proliant 580 and IBM x3850 M2. The servers can be deployed with VMware ESXi embedded to provide virtualisation capabilities right out of the box, with 40% better virtualisation performance than previous quad-core generations. And importantly, this is within the same power envelope.

The servers offer some impressive consolidation ratios, and in tests carried out by TecDem were found to scale to allow the workload of between 45 and 100 PCs to be collapsed onto a single box. It is also claimed that high consolidation ratios on large physical servers is more economical than blade scale-out environments, when licensing costs and power consumption are factored into the overall total cost of ownership.

Real opportunities in software

Such architectures swing the Green IT focus back into the data centre. Priestley of The Green Grid says there is plenty of advice on how to ‘green’ operations there. “We’ve developed some highly prescriptive in-depth guides on what should be done in the data centre, which cover off aspects such as cooling strategy and power-saving server routines. There is a data centre design guide and practical hints about hot and cold aisles, use of blanking plates in racks, and so on.”

Green Grid has also developed a free online tool to help determine how much outside air can be used to help cool the data centre. The online calculator assesses local energy costs, IT and facility loads to determine how much can be saved by using cold air drawn from the outside. At present it works only off a US or Canadian zip code, but a version for use across EMEA will become available later this year.

“In the US the Environmental Protection Agency has drawn up charts that show the amount of power used by data centres is doubling every five or six years, so clearly some action is needed in this area” says Larry Aszmann, CTO at Compellent. “The legislature coming from the US government is trying to influence the amount of CO2 that is being pushed out of buildings, and for IT that’s led to a focus on power supply and hardware. But there are real opportunities to be found in software. Being able to use just 10% of the hardware resources that are needed for a workload by deploying software solutions, is a strategy that has a huge potential for efficiency savings.”

Aszmann points to three options that are close to his heart. “Storage virtualisation is the most obvious one,” he says. The average enterprise runs its server and storage infrastructure at around 24% utilisation. With virtualisation, that can be pushed as high as 60% or 70%. “Thin provisioning is another way of improving overall utilisation of the storage infrastructure. A typical volume will perhaps only be 20% to 40% populated, and thin provisioning software will automatically push up the level of utilisation by means of dynamic allocation. That, along with deployment of automated tiered storage software should factor in any Green IT plan.”

Compellent’s SAN software automatically classifies and migrates data across storage tiers in ways that help reduce overall storage costs by a claimed 80%, notably by storing inactive data on low-cost SATA drives. “Very little data that’s written to storage is active at any one time” Aszmann explains. “There’s probably no more than 20% active at any one time, so it makes good sense to move inactive data off expensive solid state storage and Fibre Channel drives to conserve resources.” Using such approaches and systems developed by Compellent, University College Hospital Galway has been able to produce power and cooling savings in the region of 70%, based on the cost of running its old Fibre Channel based SAN. The scheme has seen the major academic teaching hospital pick up a Green IT Initiative of the Year award, explained Rowan O’Donoghue of Origina, the IT technical services company behind the project.

Based on an automated tiering, that ultimately uses cheaper and larger SATA disks, the SAN still maintains the demanding storage performance levels of the hospital’s continually growing critical enterprise applications.”

Features like thin provisioning and dynamic storage allocation mean storage administration time has been reduced by over half, and administrators do not have to work out of hours to complete complex storage administration tasks.

In another project, he said an organisation saved over €300,000 on Oracle licenses on top of all the power/cooling/staff efficiency savings. The customer currently has eight physical UNIX database servers which would have an Oracle database licence cost of around €560,000. “The servers are used to run over 30 virtual machines. If these virtual machines were all physical servers then the organisation would be looking at a licence fee of approximately €1.13m. It’s a nice example, as it goes to show how adopting a Green IT strategy can save in other areas.”


Carousel image credit: Robert Crum, Flickr, CC licence.

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