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Technology (Innovation for Education)

How Green Can IT Get?

Green IT

PHOTO COURTESY OF CREATIVITY103.COM

Promoting sustainability has become an imperative on every campus. But as institutions gain experience, some units not traditionally considered as particularly green are making impressive progress. That’s the case in Information Technology (IT), where longstanding practices such as recycling hardware are being complemented by other creative measures.

“We recognize that our resources are finite and want to do everything we can to stretch those for generations to come,” says William Morse, associate vice president for technology services and chief information officer at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. “After all, those future generations are who we as institutions of higher learning are here to serve.”

Altruism aside, sustainability efforts can lead to sound business practices, Morse says. This can range from the basics of saving on power or getting money back through green recycling to improving system manageability.

“Going green means simplification and it means you husband your resources more carefully which, in turn, can help equipment last longer,” Morse says. “For us, these efforts have turned into a real win-win.”

Broad-Based Approach

At Indiana’s University of Notre Dame, part of the effort to conserve resources has fallen under the institution’s overall efforts toward sustainability, according to Ron Kraemer, vice president and chief information and digital officer. Under this centrally organized program, recycling not just of paper and plastic but also items such as batteries, computers and printers is encouraged. In the process, the entire technology stream is part of the campus recycling initiative.

“Our Office of Sustainability has been a wonderful partner and they lead the way for us to find innovative ways meet our sustainability goals,” Kraemer says. “In many ways, success depends on having great partners.”

The IT department has gone far beyond simply cooperating with centralized measures, however. Recent actions have included consolidating research computing resources into a single large data center and moving a significant portion of IT resources into newer, off-site data centers that are designed for efficiency. Of servers that must be retained on campus, nearly 80 percent (640 out of 868 servers) have been virtualized.

The unit has also improved efficiency in printing.

“We continually push new print management campaigns, organizing better central printing capability and making double sided printing the default,” Kraemer notes. “We are working hard to eliminate individually managed printers.”

Other efforts have focused on conserving electricity. The staff has deployed the Energy Star EZ GPO add-on, which provides the ability to adjust power management settings to automatically force CPUs and monitors into standby mode after being idle for a designated time. Devices have also been installed that turn off projectors after a period of inactivity, not only saving power but also extending lamp life. Along with a 15-minute “no signal” shut-off, a timer powers down the entire system if the touch panel has not had any activity within three hours. Document cameras and DVD players are also shut down automatically when not in use.

The Recycling Route

Just as curbside recycling programs for household goods have become popular, college officials are more routinely recycling computers and other electronic equipment.

The University of Arizona, based in Tucson, operates a surplus office within the facilities management unit that disposes of old computer equipment and cell phones. In addition, the central IT division, University Information Technology Services (UITS), has partnered with the university bookstore to support “cyberjunk” recycling initiatives. Here, anyone in the campus community may bring unwanted electronics to a central location for proper disposal and recycling.

“Disposal is not the only answer,” says Michele Norin, chief information officer. “In some cases, while computers and devices are outdated, they can be refurbished and reused to extend their lifecycle.” She adds that the university holds department sales and public auctions of used electronics so the local community can purchase them.

Even when recycling equipment is the best option, attention should be given to its possible destination, notes William R. Ferland, acting chief information officer at the Community College of Rhode Island in Providence.

“E-recycling is important, but monitoring who is getting the institution’s recyclable equipment and what they are doing with this equipment is key,” he says. “Providing old equipment to vendors who are going to strip the machines and sell the parts for scrap can often lead to larger problems for the environment.” He cites examples such as motherboards being shipped overseas where there may be no labor standards in place, and workers could be exposed to toxic chemicals or companies create hazardous waste sites.

Promising Trends

Trends such as the growth of cloud computing are leading to new efforts in conserving resources. Notre Dame is among those who have begun moving many systems to the cloud, Kraemer reports. “Large cloud providers consolidate data centers, resulting in much higher utilization rates and eliminating the waste that occurs when data centers don’t operate near their capacity,” he says. He notes that such a move has helped his institution save on construction, conserve electricity used from its power plant, limit emissions and reduce the amount of materials that must be transported to campus and be processed. The University of Arizona is currently mapping out a long-term cloud computing strategy for central IT with input from campus IT departments, Norin says. Expected benefits include scaling of capabilities, pricing structures based on pay-as-you go services, and the freeing up of physical space and infrastructure.

“By leveraging more cloud options, we can minimize our physical footprint by reducing the number of servers in our computer center and thus having less equipment to ultimately recycle,” Norin reports. Other developments in the IT world are also leading to enhanced efficiency. Along with the adoption of virtual servers at Puget Sound, progress in high-density computing is supporting the emphasis on sustainability.

“Instead of buying individual servers, we have moved to blade enclosures that host dozens of machines within a single box,” Morse says. “This allows those machines to share resources among themselves, which means they operate with less electricity and at cooler temperatures.”

Similarly, energy efficiency is a major factor in selecting equipment. “We are using thin clients where possible instead of full desktops,” Morse says. “They have no moving parts and operate with far less power than traditional machines.”

And Arizona’s Research Data Center uses water-cooled equipment racks with constant recirculation from a central chilled water plant featuring energy-efficient thermal storage. The center is also powered with a transformer-less uninterruptable power supply (UPS) that brings reduced operational costs.

Regardless of their scope, the IT area can be a significant contributor to institutional measures for conserving resources.

“It is a benefit to your institution to research sustainable solutions,” Ferland says. “These alternative ways of doing business will not only have a positive impact upon the environment, but they can benefit the institution by freeing up much-needed financial and human resources.”

Fortunately, it seems such thinking is becoming the norm. “Sustainability has just become a routine part of how we think when we take action,” says Kraemer. “Regardless of the IT activity, it just seems normal to consider the sustainability component.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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