Energy Conservation the IT Way - Part I

By Allen Bernard

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Even though gas prices have fallen dramatically in the past few weeks, it seems almost a certainty—right up there with death and taxes—that this welcome trend will change.

Although not tied as tightly to the price of crude, as oil prices change so do things like the costs of electricity, which companies use with abandon. In short, fossil fuel energy is getting more and more expensive.

Alas, while there aren't all that many off-the-shelf technologies out there for the conservation-minded CIO or IT manager to put in place, there some very basic things he or she can do that, over time, make a difference, said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist who studies these issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"The simplest thing to do is to buy Energy Star rated IT equipment," said Horowitz. "The way Energy Star works is, in general, if there is a 100 models they have test data from then they'll draw a line and say the top 25 of those earn energy star. So you're purchasing agent—all they need to do is buy Energy Star."

Okay, this is nothing new. But, Horowitz points out, you can save between $50-to-$100 per-year, per-computer (if, of course, the Energy Star power saving modes are engaged properly). Times that by the hundreds or thousands or tens-of-thousands of computers under your charge and you are adding nicely to your company's bottom line.

The trick is to utilize a computer's sleep mode instead of its screen saver (which are a old technology hangover anyway since today's screens don't burn like the yesteryear's).

"When the screen-saver comes on it's causing your computer to work even harder because your engaging your video card to have silly things like your flying toaster or virtual aquarium running. So screen-savers don't save energy. It's just the opposite," said Horowitz.

A little more expensive fix but No.1 on Horowitz's list is to swap out all your old CRTs and replace them with flat-panel displays. Not only will your employees thank you (their eye doctors may not be so complimentary) but you will cut display-related power consumption by one-half to one-third since newer flat panels only consume about 25 watts to run.

There are network management tools also available that can put equipment into sleep mode after 5 P.M., for example, and still allow IT to update everyone's virus software later that evening.

"That has a real advance payback and it is real effective at saving energy," said Horowitz. "So, it’s the next generation of power management."

Smart surge protectors are also becoming available that either shut off all a computer's peripheral devices (so long as they are plugged into the surge protector) when the computer is turned off. Some even have occupancy sensors to do this when a room is vacant for a certain amount of time, said Horowitz.

Fleet Management

For CIOs in the business of enabling fleet operations, there are host of products available that utilize GPS and software to better manage where their vehicles go and in what order. This can save a lot of gasoline.

At UPS, for example, the company rolled out an initiative call Package Flow Technology in 2003 that uses handheld computers and upgraded package labels that contain more and better information to optimize a driver's daily load for delivery.

The software handles route layout and ensures drivers don't miss that little package in the corner which causes them to turn around and go back, said UPS Spokesperson Heather Robinson. For a company that spent $2.1 billion on fuel in 2005, these savings can be substantial.

The system also helps eliminates left-hand turns, which means less engine idling and lower fuel consumption. "By basically knowing in advance what type of packages are coming in, we can basically customize and tweak routes on a daily basis," she said.

UPS markets this technology to its customers through UPS Logistics Technologies.

California-based Fleet Management Solutions offers a similar technology to its customers by coupling GPS tracking technology with a host of more advanced offerings that can tell managers where a vehicle or piece of equipment is, if it's on, how fast it's going, how many miles-per-gallon it's getting and it's speed by tying directly into the car's onboard computer.

This enables fuel-conscience managers to limit, for example, idle times and put in place policies that discourage lead-foot driving.

"When fuel was only a dollar a gallon in the U.S. it was not that big an issue but once that got North of $2 per gallon, it started really impacting the bottom line, said company Founder and CEO Cliff Henley.

"So if (a customer says) 'Hey, we want to try to average 18 MPG but at this point we're averaging 14 MPG because of all of these excessive idle times, excessive speeds and excessive power takeoffs … they can look at this empirical information and do the math and put rules and guidelines in place to change employee behavior."

Easier said than done, of course, but since the company opened its doors in July of 2002, its message has been embraced by such marquee customers as the Department of Defense, Halliburton, the countries of Egypt and Afghanistan, and Alcoa Aluminum to name a few.

In Part II of this article we'll look at the other area where IT can have a big impact on energy consumption: The data center.