Sustainable ComputingPutting IT on a Diet

Dave Ohara

As the environment and energy consumption become topics of increasing attention, IT has been called out by many as a large energy consumer. And rightfully so. There are many problems throughout the IT environment—over provisioning, underutilized equipment, poor user practices and policies, inefficient hardware, and lack of hardware retirement policies, to name just a few.

Yet there are countless strategies for making IT more environmentally sensitive. This creates an excellent opportunity for you, as an IT professional, to drive change. Every organization needs a solid sustainable computing strategy and this, in turn, requires IT professionals with knowledge who are ready to lead and evangelize changes throughout the organization.

The topic is vast and constantly changing. And your strategy is something you should be thinking about every day. So we are kicking off this new online column to explore the issues, solutions, and strategies that make up environmental and sustainable computing. In fact, there's so much to discuss, we'll be publishing, for the time being, new columns every two weeks.

The Energy Diet

Data centers used 61 billion kWh of electricity in 2006. That represents 1.5 percent of all U.S. electricity consumption that year. More alarmingly, it is double the amount consumed by data centers just a few years earlier, in 2000. (See the March 2008 Fact Sheet on National Data Center Energy Efficiency Information Program available at for more information.)

If current trend continue, energy consumed by data centers can be expected to grow by 12 percent per year. And the problem reaches beyond the data center. Desktops, laptops, and mobile devices are all large energy consumers, but their exact numbers are hard to grasp as devices are scattered around offices.

With Web services becoming increasingly common and the proliferation of mobile devices growing at exponential rates, companies, organizations, and governments around the globe are looking at how we can reduce consumption and put IT on an energy diet, such as expanding initiatives like the Energy Star program from desktops to severs as well.

Government agencies, for example, are looking into how to regulate energy use. As one of the largest energy consumers, IT is the least regulated. So don't be surprised when the government implements future requirements for sustainability and efficiency reporting.

Accumulating Waste

Many environments are reducing total energy use in the larger picture by shifting from intensive solutions to IT-based solutions. For example, while the move from a paper billing system to an electronic billing system may increase energy consumption in the data center, it reduces the overall environmental impact of paper bills. One study, published by Javelin Strategy, projects that people could save 17 million trees and prevent 4 billion tons of greenhouse gasses each year by simply eliminating paper checks and bills (please see

Energy waste accumulates in the IT world as systems are overprovisioned for worse case scenarios, projects are abandoned yet unnecessary servers are left running, users leave desktops on when they aren't being used; the list goes on.

Consider Moore's Law, which says that devices double in transistor count every 18 to 24 months. As a result, performance increases. Along with that performance comes an increase in power consumption. Power density in IT equipment is going up, creating more power and cooling issues. Imagine trying to manage your weight and health, but finding that fat is getting denser while taking up less space and needing more energy to burn. Your clothes still fit, but you weigh more than ever, it costs more to eat, and you feel less healthy.

In the data center, space (in other words, room to accommodate all of the equipment) is not the problem. Power and cooling capabilities are the scarce resources. And with scarcity comes an increase in energy costs.

What about renewable energy? Unfortunately, at this stage, renewable energy is subsidized and its true costs are more expensive than carbon-emitting fuels. But carbon emissions taxes will increase the cost of carbon-based energy. And the cost of coal, natural gas, and oil are all increasing. So get ready for a bigger electricity bill.

You have a choice—you can keep your head down, focus on your metrics, and ignore energy use. This may sound a bit selfish, but it is a common approach. The point of the green movement is to get people to take their heads out of the sand, look around, and see the impact of their actions. Going on an energy diet is smart, both for the environment and for your company's bottom line.

How Much Energy Can You Save?

When you want to lose a little bit of weight, you have built-in feedback mechanisms: how your clothes fit, how you look in the mirror, and so on. So how do you know when your hardware is not energy efficient? Circuit breakers might trip. Devices might overheat. Power bills may skyrocket. There are horror stories of people who have deployed blade systems that push the limits of the cooling system, new SAN systems that overload electrical circuits. Contact your data center and facilities staff—these are the folks who can tell you when and how often they run into these issues.

Keep in mind that remedying these problems takes power and cooling capital expenditures. These expenses are typically rolled into the total overhead and not billed to the specific department that caused the problem.

There's No Magic Energy-Saving Pill

When people talk about energy efficiency in IT, virtualization is almost always the top pick of technologies to deploy. Far too many people, however, fail to think through the long term impact. After reducing energy consumption and lowering the costs of deploying servers, virtualization will often lead to an increased rate of server deployments. This, in turn, leads to rolling out more virtualization software, more management software, and eventually more hardware.

Don't despair—virtualization is definitely part of the solution. It's an important tool for you to use in your strategy, but you can't leave virtualization to itself and expect it to make all the difference. Instead, your energy diet will require moderation.

A diet requires a shift in your mindset and making certain lifestyle changes. For your energy diet, you'll need to make changes throughout the entire IT lifecycle to account for energy use and factor in energy as a part of the total cost of ownership (TCO). Jump right in, pick an area, and measure its power consumption. To do this, add some energy monitoring equipment to your performance and test labs. (After all, you wouldn't go on a diet without using a scale to weigh yourself.)

What's in a Number?

Before you buy energy efficient technology (such as a new server), first test it in your own environment under your own load. With the current focus on environmentally friendly products, many companies are now labeling their products as green and even providing some general numbers regarding energy savings.

Beware; these numbers are usually based on what can be achieved under the best conditions to show maximum results. This serious problem is often referred to as "greenwashing." The numbers over-promise and the solutions under-deliver. Unfortunately, there is currently no equivalent to an EPA miles-per-gallon test to uniformly test equipment. Some test are in process, though. One place to look for up to date information is the Energy Star Web site for data center efficiency (

Steps to Get Started

Becoming energy aware, putting a strategy together, and implementing changes will all take time. But there are key steps you can take to get started and help you form a good foundation for your efforts.

  1. Start a group that includes people who are interested in environmental sustainability in IT. Volunteers are everywhere. You can try to get executive support, but don't be discouraged if they do not see this as a priority.
  2. Make friends with your facilities staff and find out more about your building power and cooling systems. Be sure to find out what power and cooling issues exist in your IT environment.
  3. Create a spreadsheet of actual energy consumption of IT equipment. The ratings on the devices usually provide maximum power numbers for the power supplies. Your actual usage may be as low as 50 percent of that number.
  4. Inventory all of your IT equipment and calculate your total power consumption.
  5. Get your power bill and calculate the costs for power and the percentage of your power bill used by your IT equipment.
  6. Set up meters to monitor IT energy consumption.
  7. Identify opportunities to save. This can be through more efficient equipment, eliminating over provisioning, making better use of deployed equipment (server consolidation), upgrading power and cooling systems, and turning off equipment when it's not needed. There are many solutions, which we will explore over the months to come.
  8. Set goals to hit. Success is measured in small gains, and tracking the small steps will add up. A good strategy balances reducing energy consumption and using energy more effectively.
  9. Get the cooling bill for your facilities and find out how efficient the cooling system is in removing heat. For every watt generated in the office or data center, how many watts are needed to remove the heat? Many facilities require 1 watt of cooling to remove 1 watt of heat. Holistically, there is a measurement for the data center called power usage effectives (PUE). For more on this, see "The Green Grid Data Center Power Efficiency Metrics: PUE AND DCiE" paper (
  10. 10. If you can, do an entire system design of your IT infrastructure. This is discussed in the "Best Practices for Energy Efficiency in Microsoft® Data Center Operations" paper (

Moving Forward

A move toward sustainable computing and more energy efficient IT environments is a complex but worthwhile project. There are numerous factors and just as many solutions. As the landscape changes, the solution may seem like a moving target. Finding what is right for your organization will take time, resources, support, and a deep understanding of the issues at hand.

Just remember that your environmental and sustainability efforts are something you need to pursue on a daily basis. We hope TechNet Magazine can help you along the way.

Dave Ohara has 26 years of experience in technology. He is now working with multiple companies implementing green initiatives.

© 2008 Microsoft Corporation and CMP Media, LLC. All rights reserved; reproduction in part or in whole without permission is prohibited.