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Low-Carbon Computing

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© 2009 National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO)

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 6 (November/December 2009): 34-51

"Low-Carbon Computing" originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Business Officer (http://www.nacubo.org/Business_Officer_Magazine.html), the monthly flagship magazine published by the National Association of College and University Business Officers in Washington, D.C. Karla Hignite (karlahignite@msn.com) is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

Comments on this article can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

Green IT is grabbing more mainstream headlines — and for good reason. Computing, data processing, and electronic file storage collectively account for a significant and growing share of energy consumption in the business world and on higher education campuses. With greater scrutiny of all activities that contribute to an institution's carbon footprint, information technology operations represent a largely untapped reservoir for energy reduction.

Last November EDUCAUSE held a summit to engage campus leaders in brainstorming solutions for how IT can contribute to sustainability efforts. The white paper that evolved from that event underscores a key reason more work has not yet occurred in this realm: Campus dialogue about more efficient energy consumption has often focused on the usual suspects — facilities, transportation, dining, and so forth — with much less emphasis on the role that IT can play. "Only recently have campuses begun to utter the phrase 'green IT,' and while some have embraced the idea, most have not looked past simple efforts aimed at energy reduction to truly understand the transformative role that green IT might play across campus and in the larger quest to shrink our carbon footprints," note the paper's authors.

In addition to specific efforts to reduce carbon emissions, green IT must be seen as more than an effort to reduce overall waste or limit consumption, the authors conclude. Rather, a strategic vision for green IT must incorporate forward-reaching efforts that seek to curtail technology's environmental impact.

The good news is that upfront costs for a number of opportunities have a short payback time in terms of the energy and financial savings they can produce. The college and university examples highlighted in this article point to the breadth of possibilities for shrinking IT's carbon load and the importance of working in concert to put green IT at the top of an institution's strategic agenda.

 

Six Strategies for Cutting Virtual Carbon

Here are six initiatives colleges and universities are implementing to varying degrees to reduce IT-related costs and energy consumption.

  1. Data center efficiency. Storing and processing data is a huge source of IT energy consumption and cost. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the electricity consumed in data centers and telecommunication systems represents 3 percent of the U.S. total and is growing rapidly. Well-run centers address several key factors:
    • Centralization. While researchers often want easy access to their servers, the reality is that multiple small-scale data centers physically spread throughout a campus can waste hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Centralizing an institution's data center operations saves substantially on energy consumption and operating costs.
    • Consolidation. While newer servers are much more efficient, older servers can be consolidated to maximize usage, since many current systems run at capacity levels far below 50 percent. Consolidation often results in elimination of servers that are no longer needed due to efficiency gains. Among new developments in server technology are blade servers — high-density, integrated, expandable systems that can increase server performance without increasing data center size or management costs. Likewise, campuses experimenting with cloud computing are looking to leverage the Internet and virtual machines to reduce the number of physical servers on campus required to store data.
    • Cooling. Because servers generate a lot of heat, the energy used to cool these systems can cost as much as the energy they require to run. However, manufacturer-prescribed operating temperature and humidity ranges are significantly higher than what many have typically employed as an operating standard. More are now experimenting with raising the thermostat in campus data centers to see how high temperatures can go while still avoiding hot spots. Others are testing data center design, including hot- and cold-aisle configuration for equipment racks, and are introducing new methods of airflow such as the infusion of outside air versus air conditioning
  2. Desktop virtualization. Virtualization encompasses a wide range of activities that pool resources, enabling less reliance on individual pieces of hardware, better equipment use rates, and less downtime. For instance, thin client computing refers to an approach to relocate the central processing and memory components of the desktop workstation to the data center server. The resulting "thin" desktop device has fewer breakable parts, is easier to maintain, has approximately twice the life cycle, and can run on as little as one-tenth of the power of a normal personal computer.
  3. Equipment. In addition to decommissioning or consolidating unneeded or underused servers and other hardware, more institutions are replacing CRT monitors with LCD monitors, which consume about one third to one half the energy. Likewise, some campus IT departments are systematically phasing in more laptop computing, since laptops use about 80 percent less energy than desktop models. In the move to reduce paper, toner, and energy waste, more institutions are also incorporating double-sided printers and setting up printer management programs to discourage unnecessary printing. Procurement policies that require or encourage purchasing Energy Star or EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) systems and equipment also contribute to an overall reduced energy load.
  4. Power management. Activating features that automatically shut down computers, monitors, and printers at a designated time or switch to sleep mode after a period of inactivity eliminates the slow drain of energy from workstations that run continuously. Likewise, adjusting settings for servers can help save tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. As institutions reduce the overall consumption of campus IT devices, some are also looking at electrical power generation and supply options to see how their campuses can shift their energy consumption toward renewable sources campuswide, including to power campus computing activities.
  5. Work processes. While many institutions have now moved into the arena of distance and online education, fewer have instituted telecommuting programs for employees or embraced technologies for online meetings. However, more are moving in this direction, particularly with regard to videoconferencing capability to curtail carbon emissions generated by staff travel to and from satellite campuses.
  6. Electronic waste. More campuses are not only facilitating awareness campaigns to reduce unnecessary use of energy but are also establishing programs and policies for handling outmoded equipment and other electronic waste. In addition to recycling monitors, printers, printer cartridges, and other IT-related hardware, an area of growing interest is how to repurpose waste heat generated by IT and to conserve and recycle water used in cooling systems.

Overlapping Initiatives

Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, is no stranger to sustainability. A recently installed geothermal heating and cooling system for the institution's new sports and performing arts centers was the largest project of its kind in the Northeast at the time it was built, according to Tim Burton, Adelphi's senior vice president and treasurer. The university is likewise no newcomer to sustainability in the technology arena. Since launching its green IT initiative in 2004, Adelphi has achieved an annual savings of more than $150,000 on energy costs through a combination of efficiency measures.

Projects already implemented include installing software to automatically shut down more than 750 lab computers one hour after the end of scheduled classes. They also include replacing 60 stand-alone servers with a highly efficient 14-slot blade center (a grouping of stripped-down computer servers designed to minimize use of physical space and maximize server use) and implementing a program to swap out older cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors with energy-efficient, flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, which use about half the energy. The IT department even purchased electric carts for delivering technology equipment throughout Adelphi's 75-acre main campus in Garden City.

Many of the projects have occurred in tandem and are part of a well-articulated plan developed by Jack Chen, Adelphi's chief information officer, who is able to quantify cost and energy savings in a convincing manner. For instance, offloading 8,500 student e-mail accounts to Google mail recently allowed the university to eliminate the six servers previously used to service those accounts, as well as the associated electricity and future replacement costs for obsolete equipment, notes Chen.

But Adelphi is not looking only at quick-payback projects. The university's commitment to long-term strategic change that puts IT at the forefront of reducing energy consumption is folded into the department's strategic plan, says Chen. Among the measures encompassed in this broader focus are to move holistically toward online and self-service functionality across the institution. The university's most recent foray into the paperless arena has been to introduce a pilot test for online course evaluations that will save at least 50,000 printed pages annually. Other plans are under way to explore cloud computing, which provides applications as resources via the Internet, and desktop virtualization as well as to initiate a large-scale document imaging project to digitize university files.

University leaders also want to expand Adelphi's use of videoconferencing to dramatically reduce staff travel among the main campus and its three satellite locations, which range in distance from 15 to 90 miles. Last April the university tested that capability, connecting leaders from all four campuses to discuss major initiatives and future goals. Plans are under way to expand videoconferencing opportunities for academic programs as well.

Getting IT to the Table

Joyce Dickerson spent 15 years in new business development for technology firms in the Silicon Valley before returning four years ago to her alma mater — Stanford University, Stanford, California — to head a team focused on deploying new technology services. Two years ago, she joined a meeting of the university's sustainability working group, a team that advises the president and provost on what the campus community can do to support the institution's sustainability mission. At that time, IT did not have a presence at the table, but Dickerson quickly convinced others that IT could be a big part of the solution.

Even before assuming her newly created position as director of sustainable IT less than a year ago — a position that reports to both the facilities and IT services departments — Dickerson formed a separate working group composed of top technology leaders from across Stanford's highly decentralized campus. The group's purpose was to learn what others were already doing to curb IT-related energy consumption and to gauge interest in particular initiatives they might work on together.

The group's first action was to inventory energy use related to desktop computers (upwards of 40,000) and servers used for administrative and research computing (approximately 6,000). "By our estimates, these accounted for as much as 15 percent of overall campus energy use," says Dickerson. "The group got excited about initiating a power management program, so that's where we started — where our own energy was concentrated." Deploying a centralized software tool to turn monitors off after 15 minutes of nonuse was difficult to argue against, given an estimated savings of a quarter million dollars annually, notes Dickerson. This single action also prompted a $60,000 rebate from their local utility company for the sizeable energy reduction.

As an industry veteran, Dickerson appreciates the huge strides technology companies and independent research groups are making in data center management and IT energy efficiency. Stanford, like other major research institutions with a broad computing footprint, also suffers from data center creep. Several current projects entail collaboration with facilities leaders to assess relationships between current building management systems and IT equipment in a variety of scenarios. A primary goal of one project is to identify the most efficient conditions and settings for temperature control and airflow in individual server rooms. In total, five room types are under review based on their cooling practices: fan coil, chilled water racks, house system, outside air, and DX unit. An outside engineering firm is measuring and monitoring each room type to calculate power use efficiency, which will inform future construction, remodeling, or relocation of server rooms.

Elsewhere in the works are plans to build a highly efficient centralized data center for all of Stanford's high-performance research computing. The new center would employ outside air rather than chilled water for cooling. This and other efficiency measures, along with leading-edge technologies, could reduce overall energy use of these activities by 80 percent — an approximate savings of $3 million annually.

Computing Kilowatts

As part of a joint agreement among University of California System campuses, UC Irvine is pursuing an ambitious goal of reducing its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In the IT arena, that means certain smaller-scale projects must go on the back burner while the institution first focuses on larger initiatives like server consolidation and desktop virtualization. In reality, Wendell Brase and his staff are exploring short-, medium-, and longer-term projects to identify every kilowatt hour of savings possible.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to reducing IT energy consumption, says Brase, UC Irvine's vice chancellor for administrative and business services. "The focus may be different for each campus, based on which actions can deliver the most significant savings. For some, that may be server virtualization, but for others it could be power management and workstation efficiency upgrades."

One common denominator should be conducting an IT energy audit, suggests Brase. A baseline audit — whether for the entire IT enterprise or specific areas of operation such as data centers — can help quantify associated carbon emissions. The findings will likely point to obvious opportunities worth pursuing, even in the midst of a recession, because of potential savings that can help finance additional initiatives, notes Brase. "An audit also provides a key tool for the chief business officer to use in encouraging purchasing, facilities, and IT staff to collaborate," he adds.

Brase rejects the notion that higher education institutions are inefficient places for large-scale technology operations. "Many campuses have very efficient energy infrastructures and building management and power delivery systems, so it's not necessarily the case that a lower carbon footprint will result from moving certain functions off-site," he argues. Much depends on what kind of power is being used and what kinds of efficiency gains are being implemented to reduce carbon emissions.

What many institutions may lack, concedes Brase, is accurate metering for IT operations that provides the kind of data business officers and IT leaders need to solve basic problems. "As we become more sophisticated in our understanding about where carbon is generated on our campuses and the investments we can make to reduce emissions, the best opportunities for action will become evident," says Brase.

Reconciling E-Waste

Twice each year the IT department at Baltimore's Goucher College brings an electronics recycler to campus to make it easy for students, faculty, and staff to recycle unwanted personal electronics equipment and peripherals. One opportunity takes place during an annual campuswide sustainability day; the second is in conjunction with a conference the IT department conducts each summer to provide product and equipment demonstrations and education for all faculty and staff.

In addition to ensuring that technology-driven decision making, policies, and projects are in line with institution goals to reduce energy consumption, the IT department likewise believes it has a charge to make sure campus users are employing technology in a sustainable manner, says Frances White, director of Goucher's Decker Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. One low-cost initiative the college decided to tackle last year was to implement a printer management program, with the dual goal of raising awareness and reducing printing levels campuswide.

"We started by allowing all students to print 600 pages per semester, beyond which they would have to pay," explains White. The software deployed prevents what White calls "mindless printing" by alerting users to the number of pages for each print job and asking whether the user still wants to submit the request. While the program saved more than 300,000 print pages the first year, IT staff are reassessing whether it's time to further reduce the per-semester allotment.

Currently staff and faculty printing are not monitored. "We're approaching them in a different manner, helping them to develop online forms and use administrative and academic tools like SharePoint and Blackboard to work more efficiently," says White. The IT department is likewise helping campus customers digitize their information. In preparation for the college's recent reaccreditation process, all the necessary institution files were scanned and digital versions were fully accessible to the accreditation team.

"One thing we feel strongly about within IT is that if we ask users to do something, we do it first," says White. In conjunction with its physical relocation to a new LEED-certified facility — a combination library, computing lab, and student center — that opened this fall, her group hired a summer intern to scan and then shred reams of paper files in an effort to migrate transactions with campus users and vendors online.

"We also make it our priority to supply whatever students need to learn," says White. Whereas some institutions are downsizing public computer labs because most students these days bring personal computers with them to campus, Goucher is ramping up — not in number of units but in hours of availability. In preparation for opening the 24-hour lab in the new facility, the college extended the hours of its former library to accommodate the growing interest among students for round-the-clock interaction.

"In our case, we've definitely seen use of our public labs grow in recent years," notes White. She attributes this to the learning style of Millennials, who prefer a group setting when doing their work. "They may be across the room texting each other, but they still like to be in the same place," says White. Despite the uptick in lab use, the extra hours of operation don't affect Goucher's budget, claims White. For starters, the new building is much more energy efficient. And, in the process of preparing for the new center, smaller labs scattered across campus were closed or consolidated.

Building for IT Flexibility

In 2002, the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees mandated that all new buildings meet LEED certification standards. LACCD has since embarked on a $5.7 billion voter-approved initiative to provide state-of-the-art facilities at each of the district's nine community colleges. According to Larry Eisenberg, LACCD's executive director of facilities planning and development, IT has been involved with planning from the start of the district's commitment to green construction efforts, which will reduce water and energy use and save the colleges millions of dollars in operating costs.

"My response to the question, 'What comes first, IT or facilities?' is yes," says Jorge Mata, LACCD's chief information officer. "When either facilities or IT staffs are brought in at the end of a project, it usually entails substantial dollars to fix something. That not only creates a cost burden, but it's also politically expensive when you have to spend money twice." With its new building infrastructure, the district is incorporating renewable energy supplies to help power facilities and is implementing a comprehensive energy-demand management program to monitor energy use. Just as critical, the technology backbone will allow for full flexibility and expansion to accommodate more distance education, notes Eisenberg.

"In the past, the tendency within most IT departments has been to over-provision technology, hedging our bets about what and how much we might need so that we wouldn't have to touch it again," notes Mata. "Now we are migrating to a modular standards-based approach so that we deploy only what we need, but we also reserve the capability to grow overnight. At every level in our computing and storage, we are looking to virtualize our systems," explains Mata. That includes employing thin client computing on desktops and blade server technology in the new facilities. "This will help us cut our IT carbon footprint in half without losing any capability," notes Mata.

Subodh Kumar, a consultant with CFM Group, works closely with LACCD on technology strategies. He is helping Mata and Eisenberg develop a roadmap to identify IT issues they can address at both the strategic and technical levels and to develop meaningful measures for tracking results. "In the year since we implemented high-definition videoconferencing, the cost savings from reduced travel time for faculty and staff between the district and its nine campuses has paid for the new system in full," says Kumar. The three are working together to develop a formula that assesses associated carbon savings.

As for LACCD's existing IT infrastructure, carbon and cost savings will continue to be realized as older technology systems are retired, notes Mata. Newer technologies are much more scalable and efficient by design. Yet, choosing a particular technology because it is green may not always be the best choice, notes Kumar. "You need a strategic reason for what you want to do. Then you can look for a green solution."

Neither should you start your selection based on how something will reduce operational costs, adds Mata. "If you begin with operational costs, then you shoehorn the project. We start with asking how this will help students. If the solution also happens to be green and operationally effective, you achieve the trifecta," says Mata.

Eisenberg believes there is also a practical element that should never be overlooked: Does the new building or technology work? "We need to change our mindset so that we think about sustainability as fundamental to building facilities and about incorporating technologies that work right from the start."

Getting What You Budget For

One key to the success of Adelphi's green IT initiatives has been the forward-looking budgeting process the university has put in place. Five years ago Chen instituted a rolling three-year IT plan into which he incorporates the specific green initiatives he thinks the university should implement and in what period during that three-year cycle. The budget goes to all senior officers of the university so they are aware of what IT is already doing, explains Burton. "When a new idea does surface, there is less ground to cover with administration because they are already 90 percent knowledgeable about what we have planned."

Chen is likewise careful to fold in shorter-term payback projects with longer-term efforts so that savings can help fund future initiatives. "Our goal is always to do more with less — whether that's less hardware or software, less energy, or less paper," says Chen.

A looming question for higher education overall is whether the current recession may cause green IT movements to lose financial steam at a time when they've been gaining conceptual momentum on more campuses. Several recent surveys suggest continued interest and commitment to pursuing IT-related sustainability initiatives — at least for now. Results from a December 2008 survey by Stamford, Connecticut based IT research company Gartner Inc. indicate that more than one third of the 620 organization respondents worldwide (36 percent in the United States) anticipate spending more than 15 percent of their IT capital budgets on green IT projects. The summary report, "The Impact of Recession on Green IT," found that in most cases, the recession will not change or will increase the priority of green IT projects.

Enthusiasm appears to remain mostly steady on higher education campuses as well, according to the preliminary results of a major EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) survey on green IT conducted in June 2009. Of the respondents, 50.8 percent noted that during the past 12 months, their institution's financial situation had worsened somewhat, with another 25.6 percent indicating their institution's situation had worsened greatly. In other words, a full three quarters of respondents noted a worsened financial condition of their institutions.

 

IT's Assessment of Campus Sustainability

The EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) recently conducted a major study on the status of green IT at higher education campuses. While the full report of the June 2009 survey won't be published until the first quarter of 2010, ECAR Fellow and survey analyst Mark Sheehan provides a glimpse of some preliminary findings.

Of the survey's 261 respondents, 77.8 percent were campus chief information officers, followed by other IT managers and directors of administrative or academic computing. In addition to questions specific to the IT data center, the survey inquired about high-level institutional initiatives. Among them:

  1. Adopting alternative (clean/renewable) sources of electrical power
  2. Minimizing growth in total electrical energy consumption
  3. Recycling decommissioned IT equipment (e-waste)
  4. Complying with the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards for new construction
  5. Purchasing Energy Star-certified products
  6. Purchasing computers and/or monitors with EPEAT ratings of silver or better
  7. Converting from paper document storage to digitally imaged document storage
  8. Reducing staff travel through videoconferencing
  9. Adopting virtual classrooms as an energy-saving alternative to on-campus classroom instruction
  10. Adopting telecommuting as an energy-saving way for employees to work

With regard to each of these initiatives, survey questions drilled down further to determine:

  • Whether the institution was actively engaged in the initiative
  • The status of the institution's goals for the initiative
  • Whether the institution provided financial incentives to departments that participated in the initiative
  • In what ways the central IT organization supported the institution's goal (by participating in the broader institutional initiative, by educating personnel in other departments about the initiative, and/or by providing technologies/solutions to other departments)
  • The status of central IT's goals for its own such initiative

The IT leader's particular role. Several questions in the survey centered on IT's specific role in campus initiatives. In response to the question of which best characterizes the senior-most IT leader's role in environmental sustainability efforts, on the continuum of no role-observer-participant-adviser-leader, only 15.5 percent indicated the CIO as leader. Another 24 percent noted adviser, while the largest share, 43 percent, cited participant. Viewed more optimistically, 82.5 percent of respondents noted an active role for the senior IT leader in environmental sustainability efforts, with 17.5 percent having no role or a more passive observer role.

"Whether IT is in a leadership role was a key question for this study," says Sheehan. "But beyond that, we're interested in to what extent and in which areas central IT is involved in the institution's sustainability efforts and to what extent it has its own sustainability initiatives under way."

Institution versus central IT engagement. In two parallel questions about whether the institution is actively engaged in environmental sustainability initiatives and whether the central IT organization is actively engaged, nearly 90 percent (88.8) agreed or strongly agreed that the institution is engaged. In comparison, only 72.4 percent agreed or strongly agreed the same was true for the central IT organization (see figure). According to Sheehan, the difference might be explained in several ways. For instance, perhaps more passion and energy exist around sustainability issues at the institution level versus for particular IT-related initiatives. Or, perhaps the CIO sees central IT initiatives, limited as they are by resources and by competing priorities, as less dynamic than institutionwide initiatives.

Active Engagement of Institution and Central IT in Environmental Sustainability Initiatives

Figure 1

Institution versus central IT priorities. A series of questions about the status of initiatives for the institution as a whole and for the central IT organization reveals some nuanced differences about priorities, notes Sheehan. Of the 10 initiatives listed above, the one that both the institution and the central IT organization most frequently named as being under way is recycling decommissioned IT equipment (e-waste). For central IT, minimizing growth in electrical energy consumption and purchasing Energy Star-certified products were also frequently named as being under way. These same initiatives, plus the adoption of LEED standards for new construction, were most frequently named as overall priorities for the institution.

Yet, the responses require greater analysis than merely cataloguing relative frequencies of responses, notes Sheehan. For instance, there is a substantial gap between the 85.6 percent of respondents who say the institution as a whole is actively engaged in Energy Star procurement and the 73.9 percent who indicate that central IT is doing so. On the surface, the gap between these numbers might suggest that the average institution is more concerned about energy efficiency than the average central IT organization. Digging deeper, though, ECAR analysts may find that the gap simply reflects the greater availability of Energy Star alternatives for the consumer electronics that the institution buys in quantity than for the highly specialized IT gear that central IT is likely to shop for, says Sheehan.

In fact, responses to the series of questions regarding the 10 initiatives will no doubt reveal much richer detail once the full study report is available, since each initiative is further mined in terms of efforts under way with or without documented goals and with or without progress being measured. Such analysis should shed additional light on the extent to which green IT is embedded in the culture of institutions and of central IT organizations.

Specific IT initiatives. The full analysis of the survey will likewise offer an important benchmark for the status of a wide range of key activities taking place on higher education campuses. For instance, despite the steady sprawl of servers at many institutions during the past decade, it's important to note that progress is being made on the consolidation front, notes Sheehan. Among respondents, 12.3 percent say their central IT data centers completed server consolidation work more than 12 months ago (as of the survey date), and 13.9 percent completed it within the past year, while 61.1 percent have projects ongoing. Similar numbers resulted regarding the central IT data center's server virtualization (12.6 percent, 16.2 percent, and 62.3 percent, respectively). Even better results were reflected in responses regarding replacement of server-based storage with central storage such as a storage area network (27.9 percent, 18.4 percent, and 45.5 percent, respectively).

In another example, institutions overall are making significant progress in transitioning to more energy-efficient hardware, though more work lies ahead, says Sheehan. Many institutions are switching from power-hungry CRT monitors to more efficient LCDs. Here, 53 percent of respondents say they have "all or nearly all" LCD monitors in place, and 41 percent say they have "mostly" LCDs. However, regarding the transition from less-efficient desktop computers to more efficient laptops, no respondent institution reports having "all or nearly all" laptops, and only 6.8 percent say they have "mostly" laptops. "So the job is almost finished for monitors," Sheehan notes, "but it is barely under way for the computers themselves."

For full survey results and study analysis, visit the EDUCAUSE Web site (www.educause.edu) in early spring 2010.

And yet, when asked whether during the past 12 months their institution's environmental sustainability initiatives had remained unaffected by pressures related to the economy, 46.9 percent agreed or strongly agreed. When asked the same question about the central IT organization's environmental sustainability initiatives, half (50.9 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that initiatives had remained unaffected by financial pressures. This seems to suggest that despite economic and funding pressures for institutions, there remains a sense that at least some sustainability initiatives should be — and are — moving forward, according to Mark Sheehan, an ECAR fellow in charge of the survey's analysis.

For now, green IT is still a go. Beyond financial backing however, other challenges remain, including the need for greater collaboration and better articulation about the role of IT leadership in campus sustainability efforts.

More Heads Are Better Than One

In her varied role, Dickerson joins other sustainability-focused staff at Stanford to provide consultation to building tenants throughout the institution about specific actions they can take to reduce energy and waste. "A series of small interventions like purchasing energy-smart surge protectors to eliminate phantom power helped one building lower its energy costs by more than 20 percent this past spring," notes Dickerson. From her observation, building engineers are largely tuned in to best practices for efficient heating, cooling, and ventilation. The problem is that IT and facilities staffs don't always talk to each other about even simple things, like the best place to locate vents. And that's a huge missed opportunity — especially with regard to new construction of server rooms and centralized data centers, argues Dickerson.

Brase has been similarly surprised to discover that key experts within UC Irvine's IT and facilities management departments who knew each other socially had never really talked about the physical conditions required for efficient IT operations. "We had data centers that essentially hadn't moved beyond the 1960s in terms of their efficiencies, yet none of us had questioned what had been ingrained for decades as the operating standard," says Brase. In addition to getting seasoned professionals talking, Brase suggests tapping the next generation of IT leaders for their input. "As we've been discussing how to reduce our carbon footprint, we've found a whole group of younger employees who are already savvy about these issues and have put forth some creative ideas for enhancing operations."

Another untapped source at many institutions is faculty, believes Dickerson. She's identified a handful of Stanford professors who are conducting their own research in IT energy efficiency, and she plans to partner with them on future initiatives that would also allow students hands-on research experience.

Richard Katz, vice president of EDUCAUSE, would add yet another position to the IT energy-efficiency team: the HR officer. "Getting faculty on board with changes and communicating with all employees about the need to modify personal actions underscores the critical behavioral component of energy efficiency," says Katz. Involving HR could also give green IT a broader appeal if everyone understands the upside. "When you're trying to manage your campus budget, you go where the money is," says Katz. Currently there is more than a fair amount of wasted energy on most campuses. Because IT is a big user of energy, relatively small interventions to lower total energy use can make an enormous difference.

"If I were told to cut my budget by 20 percent, and if I knew that my IT-related energy costs were largely unmanaged, that's a no-brainer. Going after waste is always good because that may mean you won't have to cut personnel or delay building maintenance projects, and that should appeal to everyone at every level," argues Katz. "We have to view inefficiency as an opportunity in disguise — as gold on the floor."

Building In Accountability

IT leaders who are aware of and motivated to pursue the benefits of green IT essentially have two paths they can follow, notes Katz. One is to ensure that the IT department itself functions as efficiently as possible. The other is for the CIO to ask how IT can help the entire campus manage its energy consumption and carbon release. "There is much more that institutions could be doing in terms of sensors, monitoring, and predictive modeling and analysis. IT could lead these efforts to create an enterprisewide energy management system to tighten efficiency at every turn," notes Katz. The dilemma is that where there isn't a knowledge gap about how to proceed, a governance gap may still hinder wide-scale accomplishments. "Mobilizing deans, associate vice presidents, and other key players to accept standards, common solutions, and common infrastructure can be a political buzz saw for the CIO," Katz says.

An important question for every institution is to what extent IT should be involved in campus sustainability initiatives. "Institution leaders must ferret out how serious they really are about energy management and build accountability into the organization," says Katz. "Ultimately, if those tasked with controlling energy management don't have real authority, and if specific goals are not formalized, energy management will always be an afterthought," he warns.

While Katz is heartened that so many institution leaders have expressed good intent — evidenced in part by the number who have signed on to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment — he is a bit concerned that enthusiasm about climate neutrality could eventually follow the same path as the quality management and business process reengineering movements. "Wherever we create a new bureaucracy for which we bolt on commitment rather than blend it into our campus formula, we won't make serious progress," says Katz.

The Multiplier Effect

Dickerson understands that dilemma well. While she has full support and enthusiasm from her leadership, getting everyone else on board and in sync can be tough. She views her role as an enabler, working with IT leaders, faculty, and administration to identify specific projects that evoke strong interest and show a solid business case so that they're hard to resist from both the cost-savings and carbon-reduction standpoints. She sees at least three years of work ahead of her, steering projects that have already been assessed as having a one- to three-year payback, but she concedes that the bigger challenge may be weaving sustainability into IT strategic planning so that green IT is as much a part of IT's mindset as are data security and reliability.

Like Dickerson, Brase and his staff have been busy tinkering with server and data center efficiency, testing changes to room layout, temperature control settings, and cooling and ventilation techniques. "The idea is to go a little at a time. Observe, take measurements, and make adjustments until you arrive at optimal operation with the least energy consumption," he says.

From a holistic view, Brase believes that calculations used to factor campus energy efficiency should be assessed based on their multiplicative value. For instance, introducing efficient power delivery and heat removal in campus facilities should be multiplied by the impact of instituting efficient data processing and storage, by the changed behaviors of individual users who employ power management features, and by reduced and double-sided printing, argues Brase. "Efficiency is measured not by adding but by multiplying, because the final result leveraged will be the product of all the actions we take throughout our campuses."

Going forward, every institution should factor in the exponential impact IT can and already does have — positively or negatively — on campus sustainability success.

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2014 Strategic Priorities

  • Building the Profession
  • IT as a Game Changer
  • Foundations


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Uncommon Thinking for the Common Good™

EDUCAUSE is the foremost community of higher education IT leaders and professionals.