A Savings Twofer
Efforts to reduce the costs of operating the district data center
are also producing positive benefits for the environment.
WITH 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
"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."
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
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.