Five tips for low-energy business computing

First, the data center dialed back its power consumption. Now it's the front office's turn.

Concerned about soaring energy costs, IT organizations have begun to make significant changes to the way their data centers are powered and cooled. But many IT departments haven't yet looked at saving energy by targeting the rest of the company's IT equipment.

That's short-sighted, say IT organizations that have been down this road. The reason -- data centers may use more power per square foot, but as a percentage of total power consumption, it's office equipment that's the big kahuna.

"Office equipment has become more highly featured and powerful than ever before, but there's an energy cost to that," says Katherine Kaplan, who manages the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star consumer electronics and IT initiatives.

"If you look at overall power consumption, you're seeing almost double for computers and monitors than for data centers," says Jon Weisblatt, senior product manager, power and cooling initiative at Dell Inc.

Verizon Wireless is one company that is saving plenty of green by going green. Earlier this year, the wireless carrier deployed NightWatchman power management software from 1E Ltd. that puts desktop computers and monitors in offices, stores and call centers into power-saving mode after a period of inactivity, overriding any personal settings. Another 1E product, SMSWakeup, automatically "wakes up" those machines after hours to deliver patches and updates, shutting them down again when the process is complete. "It saved us [money] just turning computers on and off on demand," says CIO Ajay Waghray.

But Waghray didn't stop there. He also replaced 7,000 PCs with power-sipping Sun Ray thin clients from Sun Microsystems Inc. in Verizon's call centers and migrated to LCD monitors companywide (a process that's still ongoing). Replacing nonmanaged PCs in 10 call centers with 7,000 managed thin clients cut energy use for that equipment by 30%, says Waghray. He estimates that the two initiatives combined have cut front-office power consumption by $900,000 a year.

To Waghray, going green is good business. The projects were good for customer service -- off-hours patching and the more-reliable thin clients improved uptime and reduced trouble-ticket volumes by 50%. "Just do business to make things more efficient, simple and customer focused, and green becomes a very important factor," he says.

There were an estimated 900 million desktops in use worldwide in 2006, according to IDC. Even if all of those units were Energy Star 2006 compliant, they would still consume 426 billion kWh of power annually.

If all of that equipment met the 2007 Energy Star 4.0 specification, it would cut power consumption by 27% over 2006 Energy Star levels, according to Marla Sanchez, principal research associate at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. That would save 115 billion kWh -- enough to power all of Switzerland for nearly two years -- and cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 178 billion lbs.

To do your part to reduce some of those emissions -- and save your own company some dough -- by following our five tips on saving resources and increasing the efficiency of front-office equipment.

1. Do an energy audit

It's hard to know where you stand if you don't first measure the efficiency of the equipment you have.

Fortunately, doing a power audit of ordinary office equipment is less complicated than auditing your data center. A simple, inexpensive meter that fits between the target device plug and the outlet can measure both current loads and cumulative power consumption over time.

If you select a device with a typical usage pattern -- say, a laser printer that gets an average-for-your-office workout each day -- you can multiply the results across the total population of similar equipment to quickly estimate total power consumption. From there, all you need to do is multiply use in kilowatt hours by your local electricity rates and you've got a baseline for savings.

Meters range from the simple to the advanced. P3 International Corp.'s Kill A Watt or Sea Sonic Electronics Co.'s Power Angel are both simple to use and inexpensive.

More advanced units, such as the Watts Up Pro from Electronic Educational Devices Inc., store data and include software for downloading and graphing that data to show watts, volts and kilowatt-hour consumption over time, giving a more accurate picture of power use.

When the facilities staff at Farmer's Almanac publisher Gieger Brothers in Lewiston, Maine, did an initial power audit, it became "a driving force behind initiatives to get power consumption down," says Joe Marshall, business systems analyst and software specialist at the firm. The audit revealed computer equipment was consuming nearly as much power after hours as it was during the day.

After you've audited energy use, the next step is to audit your internal processes to ensure that equipment is being used in the most energy-efficient manner, says Robert Aldrich, a senior manager specializing in energy efficiency at Cisco Systems Inc. And once you have that process audit -- in other words, once you know how well you are doing human-behavior-wise -- the next step is to "kick the tires on technology" by taking a look at utilities such as power management tools, he says.

2. Adopt and enforce power management

"The biggest impact you're going to make in your overall computing environment is to get systems to go to sleep," says Dell's Weisblatt. For example, a laptop that uses 14 to 90 watts in full operation uses less than 1 watt in standby mode. Desktops consume even more, and a single CRT monitor may use upward of 90 watts.

Most companies, however, aren't managing power settings in a coordinated way, and many desktops don't have power management turned on at all.

Enhanced power management tools provided by system vendors aren't even installed in the baseline system image of many corporate PCs. "We do all this work to make [computers] optimized for power management, and we find big corporations go and make changes and deoptimize it," says Howard Locker, director of new technology at Lenovo.

The issue is that it takes IT extra work to integrate and test Lenovo's bundled software with the company's standard image, he says. Often, organizations don't want to take the time to do that.

Some corporations, however, are starting to get the message. Network administrator Keith Brown deployed LANDesk Software's LANDesk to manage -- and lock down -- power settings on all laptops, desktops and attached monitors at Gwinnett Hospital System in Lawrenceville, Ga.

Power savings at the network level

When it comes to networking, power savings are more difficult to come by. In other words, sleep mode doesn't help much when the network never sleeps.

"If you want [your] YouTube video to come up in three seconds or less," quips Robert Aldrich, a senior manager specializing in energy efficiency at Cisco Systems, "the switches moving those packets have to be in always-on ready mode."

But he sees that changing. "By this time next year, any end devices we sell will have some sort of power-efficiency mode. That's a big initiative for us," he says.

Voice over IP and power over Ethernet (PoE) have also increased upfront office power demands by pushing power consumption from a central PBX out onto the desktop. An IP phone adds about 15 watts of power to each cubicle -- which adds up when you have 1,000 or more users. The PoE-enabled switches in the wiring closet also use more power than non-PoE models do.

Overall, however, a native VoIP system typically consumes less power than the digital PBX system it replaces, Aldrich says.

Like 1E's SMSWakeUp, LANDesk takes advantage of Intel Corp.'s vPro Active Management Technology (AMT), a feature built into its vPro series processors that supports remote management. That allows LANDesk and similar tools to remotely turn on PCs, upload updates, and turn them off again. "It allows you to do 'out-of-band' management on desktops," allowing control even when machines are turned off, explains Brown.

For times when laptops are turned on -- that is, when they're being used by employees -- Lenovo recommends configuring the disk drive to spin down after five minutes of inactivity, the monitor to go blank at 10 minutes, and the machine to go into standby, or suspend, mode after 20 minutes.

Others, such as Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist at the energy efficiency think tank Rocky Mountain Institute, recommend even more aggressive settings. He suggests turning off monitors and spinning down the disk drive after just two or three minutes of inactivity.

Verizon's Waghray says he had no trouble enforcing power-saving settings. Machines power off at 12:30 a.m. and back on at 5:30 a.m. Desktop monitors and hard drives go into power-saving mode after two hours, while on thin clients the monitors and processors go into low-power mode after 20 minutes of inactivity.

At Gieger, things were different. While the company does centrally control power management settings, it has had to back off a bit. "There's been a little bit of pushback on that, so we're taking baby steps," Marshall says, noting that current monitor timeouts are set for one hour.

The problem for users is that recovery times vary. Getting back online from hibernate mode, where the system turns off and the system's state is saved to disk, can take up to 30 seconds. It takes just a few seconds, though, to recover from low-power suspend mode or for the monitor or disk drive to come back to life. Still, some users don't like to wait at all, says Marshall.

Every organization needs to find the right balance, managers say. "A few seconds of [wait] time for the average person is not going to be invasive," says Jorge Bandin, vice president of information systems and technology at hosted services provider Terremark Worldwide Inc. His company forces all PCs to go into sleep mode after 30 minutes of inactivity.

In a call center, where computers are in use all the time, sleep mode less of an issue, but even so, people aren't given a choice, says Waghray. When users step away from a console for more than a couple of minutes, the system is powered down and locked.

3. Dump those CRTs

Replacing older computers and peripherals with Energy Star-rated equipment can save both energy and space -- and the lower power consumption can significantly reduce cooling loads in office areas, further extending savings.

The place to start is with CRT displays.

"The biggest offenders are the monitors," says Brown. Most businesses have already begun phasing out CRTs in favor of more efficient LCDs, which use about one-third less power, but they still have plenty of CRTs waiting to go. Verizon Wireless accelerated its refresh cycle because doing so not only saved energy but freed up valuable desk space in its call centers, says Waghray.

To save energy, move data, not people

Energy-efficient computers are good, energy-efficient people are even better. A green office is about more than using energy-efficient equipment: The application of information technology to support teleconferencing and telework can make both people and businesses more efficient.

Several hundred people employed with Cox Communications Inc.'s call center this year began working four out of five days from home. Using a browser and their own home computers, remote staff access a suite of applications hosted on a Citrix Presentation Server back end.

To access the system, call center workers download a browser plug-in and then authenticate to the system. "We can present the entire environment to any computer anywhere. We even stream content to employees for staff meetings," says Josh Nelson, vice president of information and network technology.

By rotating different teleworkers into the office on different days of the week, Cox has cut computer equipment and cubicle space needs, and avoided a building expansion.

Employees benefit, too: In an era of $3 a gallon gasoline, they have taken to the voluntary program because it saves four commuting trips to the office each week and takes several hundred cars -- and the emissions they produce -- off the roads each day. "It's been quite impressive from a cost perspective [and] what it does for the environment," Nelson says.

Terremark Worldwide Inc.'s hosting business requires employees to travel both globally and locally between facilities for everyday meetings. It recently deployed videoconferencing systems from Tandberg to tie together conference rooms between its facilities. Before, staff made regular trips between the main offices and its hosted data center facilities two hours away.

"It helped us avoid about 20% of the travel we were doing before," says George Bandin, vice president of information system and technology. "Just within our own facilities, it's a huge savings in fuel and time."

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