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Asset Management and Sustainability at the University of Richmond

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Key Takeaways

  • Like many other universities, the University of Richmond has committed to creating a comprehensive sustainability action plan to move the university toward climate neutrality.
  • The Information Services department supports this goal through asset management of equipment, including reuse and responsible recycling.
  • Important additional benefits of thoughtful asset management are substantial savings in costs, cost avoidance, and increased efficiency of processes.

In January 2008, Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. This commits the university to creating a comprehensive action plan to move toward climate neutrality. Even before “sustainability” became one of the university’s overall goals, Information Services (IS) had already established a sustainability program through reusing (redeploying) and recycling computers. In line with this goal, the IS department at the university seeks to reduce costs and increase efficiency, with a special sensitivity for the environmental impact of the e-waste generated on campus.

When I began here at the University of Richmond, I was hired to purchase the hardware and software for all university desktop systems. (My title is procurement coordinator for Information Services.) Shortly after my arrival, my job description changed to encompass the tracking of desktop computer assets due to the overwhelming need for managing the life cycle of these assets from cradle (purchase) to grave (disposal).

Asset management involves knowing:

  • What assets are in your total inventory of equipment
  • Details of each asset (make and manufacturer)
  • Configuration of each asset (for example, desktop computer with a dual core processor, 160 GB hard drive, and 3 GB of RAM)
  • Status of each asset, whether it is currently in storage, in use, or scheduled to be redeployed

With this information and an accurate estimate of the campus community’s varying needs for technology, you can determine the most efficient distribution of your inventory among users across campus. For example:

  • You need to push a new software program or upgrade out to all users’ systems over the campus network. Knowing your inventory tells you whether all the systems are ready for the upgrade. Addressing issues with individual systems before pushing out new software avoids problems that would otherwise have to be fixed after the push.
  • A researcher contacts you with a request for a computer to run an application that collects data from a new microscope. Suppose minimum requirements for the application are Windows XP, Pentium 4 processor, 1 GB of RAM, and 10 GB of available hard drive space. You can evaluate your inventory to determine whether a refurbished computer system will suit the purpose, saving about $1,000 or more of grant money that might otherwise go to purchasing a new computer rather than for other research needs. You also save soft costs related to network access, software licensing, and support of the new system.
  • At the University of Richmond, the Office of Advancement and the Annual Fund Office have a call center with 10 computers that are used during an annual outreach effort. This “phone-a-thon” room uses multiple refurbished systems pulled from inventory storage rather than purchasing new systems.

Asset management is so important because we believe in providing our customers with superior service while managing and reducing costs wherever and whenever we can. I sold this issue internally on the basis of improved efficiencies, reduced costs, and increased security, as well as the ability to create an audit trail to ensure that our objectives were being met. Management supported this project because we did the research necessary to justify making the change. It also positioned us to establish a “best practices” recycling program, which we feel could be a model that our peer institutions would want to emulate.

The IS sustainability goals are to:

  • Reuse computers that still have a useful life
  • Recycle computers using the most environmentally responsible process
  • Manage data security in a cost-effective manner

An overarching goal is to reduce the cost of desktop computing.

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Listen to Wendy Burchard’s podcast interview with Gerry Bayne of EDUCAUSE for highlights of the computer reuse and recycling efforts at the University of Richmond.

Music: “Aheste” by Fahir Atakoglu

Reusing Computers

One way to achieve sustainability (and reduce costs) is through the reuse of computer assets. A typical desktop will have a useful life here at the university for a period of six years, with a three-year cycle for primary systems and another three-year cycle for secondary (refurbished) systems. Our total inventory at any given time includes about 4,500 computer systems plus 5,000 to 6,000 peripherals (printers and scanners, for example). The peripherals generally stay in the same place throughout their life cycle, although some return to Information Services Inventory storage for secondary use. About one-third of the computer systems in our total inventory consist of secondary systems.

Annual System Rotations

In January each year I meet with each department that is scheduled to have their primary systems replaced to discuss their anticipated needs. At the same time, I look at areas where secondary systems can be applied and begin to build a list of systems that will be replaced that year.

About 2,100 primary systems are located around campus; of these, approximately 1,000 are in labs and student access areas including 75 in the main library. Secondary systems are used in computer lounges in the residence halls, for example, where students gather to do homework and surf the web rather than going to a computer lab or the library. The computer lounges provide 24-hour access to computer systems.

Availability of the secondary systems fluctuates with the time of year, with the biggest IS Inventory during the fall (several hundred machines) following our summer cleanup of primary systems cycled out of use and into inventory storage (see Figure 1). Sometimes by March or April we run out of secondary systems and users will have to wait until June, when we start deploying newly purchased primary systems.

Figure 1
Figure 1. IS Inventory Storage Room at the University of Richmond

Systems assigned to full-time faculty and staff — as well as many labs, classrooms, and public computing environments — are rotated out on a three-year replacement cycle. Those systems are returned to the IS department and cleaned of dirt and debris; the hard drives are scrubbed of data and reimaged (see Figure 2). One FTE staff person spends about half of her time managing the process of refurbishing 300 computers. During this summer project we employ one full-time student worker to manage the asset management database, and three FTE student workers support the summer clean-up effort. During the school year, one student manages the system 15 hours a week, while two to three part-time students support the process. We estimate student labor supporting this program to be about $27,000.

Figure 2
Figure 2. University of Richmond Student Scot Riddell Refurbishing Computers

The refurbished systems are then cascaded down into secondary environments and set aside for maintenance and spare parts needs. Secondary environments include:

  • Part-time or short-term employees
  • Department travel needs (laptops)
  • Research labs that don’t require primary systems to support their work
  • Student access systems throughout campus
  • Student employee systems
  • Parts inventory for break/fix purposes

We also use secondary systems to replace older systems used in research labs. This allows the research projects to continue even when funding is gone. Some secondary systems require more support than new systems and have more problems that require maintenance. The costs are outweighed by the benefits, such as the ability to support programs without additional costs for new equipment.

We redeploy 300 computers annually as secondary systems rather than buying new ones, saving an estimated $360,000 a year.

Reuse Rules

We apply certain rules to systems that enter the secondary stage of our reuse cycle, and we communicate these to the campus community:

  • All secondary systems no longer have manufacturer’s warranty, and we will not pay to replace parts or spend any money to upgrade the hardware, although we will combine parts from ailing systems to make one working system. If a secondary system breaks, we will replace it with another secondary system. However, if a user requests an upgrade to the memory or hard drive on a secondary system, they have to pay for the parts. Most of the time, if they need more processing power we will replace the system.
  • Each secondary system has the operating system on it that it had when it was taken out of its primary role. However, the applications are upgraded to the current standard on campus.
  • First come, first served in getting a secondary system. As noted above, we sometimes run out of computer systems before the end of the school year.
  • Because we don’t have formal replacement cycle for secondary systems, faculty and staff have to request replacements. However, in the past few years we have begun reviewing the secondary environment and replacing the oldest systems.
  • We do not allow at-home use of secondary systems.
  • IS needs two weeks notice for secondary system installation requests.

Upsides and Downsides

Reusing computers in this cascading process has some obvious benefits for the IS department and the university as a whole:

  • Eliminates the need to purchase computers for areas that do not need brand-new systems.
  • Full-time faculty and staff get new equipment and are able to take advantage of the latest processing power.
  • Research projects are able to put their money toward primary resources for research versus hardware when a secondary system suits some of their processing needs.

On the other hand, reusing computers has some challenges:

  • IS must support and manage more systems as they age and drop out of warranty.
  • We cannot always meet users’ needs (for example, the systems are not powerful enough for all requirements).
  • Equipment is not always available later in the school year as inventory of stored systems drops.

System Retirements

Secondary systems are returned to IS Inventory when they reach the end of their useful life or are no longer needed. Systems that are in good working order, but no longer meet our minimum requirements for use on campus, are evaluated for donation or disposal. Regardless of whether they are donated or sent to the recycler, systems go through the same process:

  1. Those systems are wiped of data (DoD 3 pass standard).
  2. They are cleaned of dirt and debris.
  3. As part of a standard maintenance process, all malfunctioning hard drives that cannot be wiped through the DoD process are physically destroyed.
  4. Asset tags are removed.
  5. Systems are stored in a secure location.
  6. Quarterly, we contact our e-waste vendor and arrange for pick-up of the systems.
  7. Each system is removed from our Asset Management System.

Screenshots

Recycling Computers

Ten or so years ago most of our equipment went to charity through a student organization on campus that would refurbish computers and then donate them to the underprivileged. Eventually this student organization folded. We then contracted an electronic-waste recycling company to pick up the equipment. They charged us by the pound to destroy equipment. This got rid of the equipment, but there were a few things missing in this process. While we wiped drives using the DOD 3 pass process and recorded the serial number of the asset before it left campus, we did not have a complete audit trail from the vendor. They did not record the asset information — their truck would pull away with our systems and that was the end of it.

This made me uncomfortable. Where exactly was our equipment going? This prompted me to identify what we needed in order to securely and cost-effectively dispose of assets that we no longer needed in an environmentally responsible way. The goal was to find an e-waste partner that would:

  • Securely pick up and drop off our equipment
  • Provide an audit trail and ad hoc reporting capabilities
  • Take ownership of the equipment
  • Assume liability for the assets under their control
  • Dispose of our equipment in the most environmentally friendly way
  • Make sure that our data is completely removed from all hard drives

During the request for proposal process we met with each vendor individually. When we met with the vendor that was our e-waste disposal provider at the time, they informed us that not all of our equipment was being destroyed, even though we had assumed it was. They told us that if they found value in something, they sold it. They did not get the new contract.

We contracted with Redemtech because they fit all our requirements for e-waste recycling, including close tracking of our assets. In addition, they continue the sustainable process by remarketing the usable equipment and giving the university part of the profits, which are now credited toward the cost of the recycling. Remarketing of used equipment for resale helps offset the costs of environmentally responsible disposal and further extends equipment’s useful life cycle. Given the quick loss of value over time, a faster turnaround yields a higher return. The speed of turnaround is thus a factor to consider when evaluating vendors. Another factor is whether the vendor refurbishes equipment for resale, which increases its value. In a situation like ours, where the vendor shares profits, the returns further offset costs of the program.

In choosing an e-waste recycling vendor, there are certain steps to follow (and avoid).

Do:

  • Visit their recycling plant, making scheduled and unscheduled visits.
  • Make sure they don’t ship equipment overseas.
  • Have them provide an audit trail.
  • Verify that they are covered by a liability policy. (All e-waste recyclers need to have a liability policy that will insure against data loss or environmental damages and indemnify the customer from any type of loss that could ensue through the disposal or remarketing process.)
  • Verify that the company is an E-Stewards–approved e-waste vendor.

Don’t:

  • Select a vendor based on cost.
  • Share your inventory. Many vendors want to know how many systems you have in your environment so that they can forecast how often and how much equipment they might get from you. This is really none of their business.
  • Commit all your equipment to one vendor. You always want to keep your options open. An e-waste vendor should never have you sign a contract that makes them the sole source provider. However, we have not had any reason to use another vendor to this point.
  • Dispose of hard drives without getting a certificate of destruction.
  • Expect that all your equipment will be resold. Some will not have marketable value and will be recycled.
  • Go with a vendor that is going to put your equipment in a landfill. Ask them to explain exactly where your equipment is going or what will happen to it.

Donating Equipment

Donating is an easy way to get rid of your equipment and has a positive impact on community relationships, but there are audit and liability concerns to take into account when donating systems. Mainly, you can’t guarantee that the system won’t end up in a landfill. Some ways to reduce liability are to establish certain requirements:

  • Donation requests must be on the organization’s letterhead. Know who you are donating equipment to. If you are not comfortable with the organization, you don’t have to donate to them.
  • Have organizations sign a transfer of ownership contract.
  • Have organizations sign a commitment to recycling the system in an environmentally friendly manner.

Another factor to consider is the loss of potential income from remarketing of old systems. Depending on the university’s goals, a combination of resale and donations of old equipment might be the best solution. You can also, for an additional cost, arrange with your vendor to provide asset recovery for equipment you’d prefer to donate. Simply send those requesting donation to your vendor to handle the transactions.

Reducing Costs

The overall funds we save by reusing systems on campus is hard to measure, and it could also be looked at as cost avoidance. By switching to Redemtech, we reduced the cost of equipment disposal through their remarketing of our old equipment. Sometimes the equipment is sold as an entire unit, and sometimes the parts are sold. It is not unusual for us to recover 50 to 75 percent of the recycling cost through the remarketing. Sometimes you can make a profit from this, depending on the quality of the equipment disposed of.

Through Redemtech’s audit processes we are able to quantify sustainability data and provide a carbon footprint as it is related to electronic waste (see Table 1). To date we have:

  • Securely erased more than 57 terabytes of data.
  • Diverted from landfills nearly 53,000 pounds of electronic waste. Of this, approximately 60 percent was recycled and 40 percent was reused through remarketing sales.
  • Instituted energy savings equivalent to the electricity required to power 484 households for an entire year (estimated by Redemtech using a carbon footprint reduction formula).
  • Reduced greenhouse gas carbon emissions equal to removing 144 passenger cars from the road for a year.

Table 1. Redemtech Metrics on Carbon Offset/Landfill Credit, University of Richmond

Demand Reduction Recycle Reuse
Energy (kWh) 34,056 2,626,642
Crude oil (55-gallon barrels) 97 7,364
Landfill space (cubic yards) 126 43

Asset Management Lessons Learned

When I first arrived at the University of Richmond, some people felt that performing hardware and software inventories invaded the privacy of faculty and staff. This leads to the first lesson:

Lesson 1: Explain the need and purpose for asset inventories and gain buy-in from upper management.

Historically, once a physical inventory was complete, assets were tracked manually in a Microsoft Office Access database. Equipment arrived and was assigned an asset number. Then the asset information including the make, model, and serial number was loaded into the spreadsheet. This method works as long as the asset remains in the same location for its lifetime. While everyone tried to record each time an asset was moved or redeployed, this was not the main focus for the technicians. Their main goal was to get a user up and running. Hence, the second lesson:

Lesson 2: Ensure that your technicians understand your goals and the purpose for tracking assets.

In 2004 we deployed a client-based system to track equipment via the network. At first, many people looked at this system as “big brother is watching us.” We reassured users that the sole reason for the system was to track hardware assets for audit and planning purposes, not to view their data files or e-mail. The new system deployed a client on each Windows-based system. Monthly, a request goes out to all systems and record any changes to the asset. This provides us real-time data. This information became a valuable tool for planning software and hardware upgrades, budget planning, and resource allocation. The increased efficiency has greatly improved our workflow.

The community reactions led to the third lesson:

Lesson 3: Communicate to your user community what the system does, why it is important, and how it will benefit them.

Conclusion

Looking back at the progress in our asset management and e-waste disposal programs, it’s clear that certain factors contributed heavily to our success:

Management support, including support from the highest levels

Our reuse and recycling program actually started 10 years ago. After the university’s president signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a meeting was held to communicate sustainability efforts across campus to the university’s leadership. We were able to explain our asset management program and how IS efforts feed up into the university’s sustainability objectives, gaining further high-level support for the program.

Centralization of purchasing, receiving, deployment, and disposal

Having a centralized IS department makes our asset management, reuse, and recycling program possible across campus. Centralization is key to this process of primary and secondary deployments, from purchasing to disposal — from cradle to grave. Campuses with centralized control of technology assets might find as much value in this approach as we have, but large universities with decentralized, departmental or college-based IT purchasing might not be able to implement a similar system.

Policies promoting sustainable efforts

Again, campus support and acceptance, from top administrators to faculty and student users, feeds success of our reuse and recycling program. Widely accepted policies explaining the benefits of the program have made a difference in its adoption.

Reduced costs/cost avoidance

Although sustainability initiatives benefit the environment, lowering costs and avoiding new purchases through reuse of systems strengthens the argument on campuses facing tight budgets.

Sustainable data (the ability to provide an audit trail for our assets and metrics about the program’s success)

In the past two years we have begun collecting data on our sustainability efforts and their impact across campus. Having the metrics will help us further streamline our processes and increase the benefits, but we’re not there yet. For example, we have implemented power management on desktops to reduce their energy use in off hours and plan to take further steps to build on the success of our asset management program.

Taking responsibility for proper disposal of our technology assets

By choosing an e-waste vendor carefully, we can keep our systems out of landfills and make sure they are properly recycled and disposed of at the end of their life cycles. All assets that we send for recycling/remarketing to Redemtech go through a discovery and registry process where they are inventoried (including all asset specifications), their condition and quality are evaluated, and they are registered in Redemtech’s tracking system. This allows us to track our assets from purchase through recycling, even when they are no longer on campus.

Figure 3 shows a flowchart of the entire asset management process, tracking computers at the University of Richmond from purchase through disposal — from cradle to grave.

Figure 3
Figure 3. University of Richmond Asset Management Process

As the technology environment here at the University of Richmond grows, so does the need for changes in asset management. While the current asset management system has worked well for several years, we are now at a stage where we need a tool that does more. Soon we will be deploying a new system that will encompass all platforms and provide better software licensing management. At the University of Richmond, increasing the efficiency of our asset management processes contributes directly to sustainability as well as to our bottom line. Today most organizations are expected to be budget conscious and green at the same time. Our program, while not perfect, does a pretty good job of keeping these important objectives in balance..

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