A Savings Twofer

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Efforts to reduce the costs of operating the district data center are also producing positive benefits for the environment.

A Savings TwoferWITH THE COST OF electricity and consumer goods rising as rapidly as the economy deflates, the decision of many school districts to go green has been one born of necessity and reared by technology. Districts are finding that using technologies to cut their expenses is a positive upshot of reducing their carbon footprint.

One area of operation where the green movement is naturally starting to take hold is the district data center, where the associated power and heatingand- cooling costs can run into millions of dollars each year. An integral strategy is the implementation of virtualization technology-- both server and storage-- which allows districts to cut their hardware usage, producing the automatic bonus of a lower power bill.

"Reducing our carbon footprint is a byproduct of reducing costs," says Jim Blodgett, network engineer at the Eau Claire Area School District in Eau Claire, WI. "We are so focused on saving money; if our return on investment is seven to 10 years out, that's a lot of time to wait for a school district. We approached virtualization more as a money saver rather than an effort to go green."

PowerDown

Miami-Dade County Public Schools projects that a power management strategy it recently implemented will save the district $2 million annually and suppress 64,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Through virtualization, Eau Claire has been able to reduce the number of its storage server racks from five to three, which not only decreased the amount of space the district needed for equipment but also cut its energy consumption, Blodgett says. In addition, the district, which has 22 buildings and roughly 70 data closets, was able to consolidate nearly all of its data storage at its central office using a Xiotech storage area network (SAN).

Other school districts have reaped similar savings with virtualization. "Using server virtualization has saved our school district $7 million in costs within the last year," says Tom Sims, director of network services for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which has an annual electric bill of $80 million and is in its third year of using server virtualization. "It was a natural for me because our data center was built to house mainframes and has a limited power capability. Virtualization was absolutely the right answer."

Virtualization is certainly not a new innovation. Mainframe computers used an earlier iteration of virtualization technology to partition the machines and run multiple applications. In the 1990s, companies discovered it was more cost-effective to use virtualization technology to harness the unused power of dedicated servers and run applications across multiple servers than to dedicate an entire server to one application and possibly leave a lot of computing power untapped.

The technology has trickled down into the school systems, where virtualization is now becoming a must-have resource, especially as the amount of data districts are generating has increased dramatically over the past few years.

"I would say that 90 percent of our K-12 customers are at least testing virtualization and putting it into their budgets, and 35 percent are out there using it," says Mark Horan, vice president and general manager of public accounts for Dell. "Most everyone I talk to in K-12 is looking at virtualizing their data center."

Some districts that have implemented server virtualization also have found a complementary technology in blades. Blade technology consists of multiple servers that are housed in a chassis, which handles the power, cooling, networking, and management of the servers.

The move to virtualization is but the latest in a series of technology-driven conservationist steps undertaken at the Pawtucket School Department in Rhode Island. The district started at the desktop, replacing classroom computers with thin clients, which-- along with accompanying flat-panel monitors-- cost only about $200 each and reduced power consumption from 100 watts per machine down to about 5 watts per machine, says Michael St. Jean, Pawtucket's director of technology.

"But even though we saved so much money at the desktop, we added a tremendous amount of servers to run these thin clients," he says. "So we started working very seriously at virtualizing, and our push now is to virtualize and consolidate."

Pawtucket has virtualized the majority of its applications and is now in the process of consolidating its data centers into one central location. Using a Hewlett-Packard (HP blade chassis with 10 blades and a Fibre Channel SAN for its storage needs, the district is now working to further reduce its footprint.

"When we did mass migration to thin clients, we saved $500,000 in electrical costs along with other conservation efforts," St. Jean says. "If you figure however much power a traditional server draws along with the air conditioning to keep it cool, we're cutting all that down.

"There is considerable energy savings with centralizing and virtualizing, especially for an urban district with wildly fluctuating budgets. It makes it so much more cost-effective. We also don't have much staff, so this allows a few of us to do the job of many. We don't have to be in 17 buildings simultaneously. We can work more efficiently."

Implementing more energy-efficient technology is one answer to curbing costs and reducing carbon emissions, but oftentimes the most energy is wasted on devices that aren't even being used. That's where power management comes in. Whether by installing software in the data center that automatically shuts down unused systems or by simply instructing users to turn off idle machines, an effective power management strategy can save a school district a significant sum of money.

"We did a 90-day pilot with three or four schools in August 2007 and monitored [monthly] desktop consumption, and it turned out to be $75 per desktop," says Miami-Dade's Sims. "Before, our mantra was ‘Keep your computers on,' but that changed because patches now can be applied at any time, so we wanted to institute a systemwide strategy for powering computers off at the earliest possible time."

The district has since implemented a power management strategy across all of its schools that Sims projects will save $2 million per year and suppress 64,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. "Just turning off the computers-- that is significant," he says.

"Some customers are just learning what it means to [operate] an efficient data center, and a huge part is having a strategy for efficient power and cooling," says Bill Bockoven, vice president of the public sector for American Power Conversion, which is helping its K-12 customers reduce their energy consumption through efficient power and cooling initiatives. "That takes up 70 percent of the costs in a data center."

Eau Claire's Blodgett says his district installed a solution from Altiris that enables it to turn individual workstations off and on at its own discretion. "By using technologies such as this," he says, "we are saving $55,000 to $70,000 per year-- basically the salary of a teacher."

But all these technologies add up to a hollow solution if the old equipment enters the waste stream and pollutes the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency and many states have adopted strict guidelines for disposing of old electronics, and a plethora of companies are devoted to e-cycling. Plus, many vendors are doing their part to help users safely get rid of their old computing equipment.

Dell, for one, has an asset recovery service for all of its customers-- business and individual consumers-- in which it accepts old machines for recycling. HP, likewise, has a trade-in program, and IBM does as well.

Some districts are putting their old computers to work, refashioning them for use as servers as the need arises. Pawtucket's St. Jean says his district is doing just that with the computers it decommissioned when it implemented its thin client system. "Our first round, we retrofitted them as thin clients," he says. "We put in a new network card that would boot to the terminal server and disconnected the hard drives. The terminal server hosted the application."

Such ingenuity actually saves money and resources at the same time. "We are actually spending less money to do more," St. Jean says. "We save money and we're helping reduce the waste stream. It's truly a win-win situation."

Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York City.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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