Forum: Green Computing

This session looked at how universities can reduce their electricity consumption in PC use.

As well as discussing who should be responsible for reducing ITC electricity consumption, delegates were treated to a demonstration of a project currently being tested at Oxford University which monitors and optimises PC use.

Rob Bristow from JISC introduced the issue of green computing by talking about JISC’s responsibility regarding the environmental impact of ITC in the HE sector.

He explained how JISC commissioned a year-long study to look at the issue, and JISC’s involvement with a number of projects within institutions to look at institutional-level solutions.

Bristow then introduced the two forum speakers: Peter James from Suste-IT and Howard Noble from Oxford University.

Peter James

Professor Peter James from Suste-IT explained his involvement in ITC structures and technologies. He mentioned the important but energy-hungry issue of data centre cooling – and raised a few chuckles, as he was speaking to a room of shivering delegates in a rather enthusiastically air-conditioned room.

James’ presentation is available at the end of this post, but in brief, he explained how the moral impetus for environmentally-aware procedures is important, but it has a greater impact when linked to self-interest. He said that the most powerful area of self-interest for this issue is financial.

With prices going through the roof, universities might start finding themselves spending millions more pounds on electricity than they had originally budgeted for. Other, less tangible self-interest issues include university’s reputation and need to set the example, especially if it is involved in ITC or environmental research.

To give delegates an idea of power usage, James used the University of Sheffield as an example. In the university PCs are responsible for 48% of power consumption, and servers responsible for 18%.

James said that while it’s important to look at the whole life cycle of computers to understand their true power costs, current studies estimate that half of the lifetime energy use is in actual use.

The website has a tool to help institutions monitor their power consumption.

One potential solution to reduce power consumption could be to ask IT departments to pay for the ITC power, but there is are also technical solutions such as implementing powerdowns, grid computing and energy-efficient data centres.

Howard Noble

Howard Noble from Ivest Oxford then demonstrated a project to reduce power consumption, which has been piloted in Oxford University.

Noble explained that while it sounds easy to ask people to simply switch off computers when they are not being used, it’s actually difficult to implement. Computers need to be available to install patches, some people need to access their computers remotely, and some people also believe the myth that computers are more likely to fail if they are repeatedly switched on and off.

The software demonstrated was a realistic simulation of how people use computers. It can model the effects of standby, and give real data on how much power is being used. As well as monitoring use, it can measure capacity and reveal opportunities for grid computing, to make the most of idle machines.

The purpose of the software is not to just save money, but to understand the issues and reveal opportunities – for example, an institution could sell grid computing capacity to external organisations.

The software is currently being tested at Oxford but will be free for all educational institutions.

Comments from delegates

Delegates were then invited to add their comments and ask questions, which were then answered by the speakers.

Owen Stephens, Imperial College London: “I can see why asking the IT departments to pay for power was proposed, but is that really going to be effective in terms of individual’s PC usage as opposed to server usage?”

David Beards, Scottish Funding Council: “I think we need to change people’s behaviours in the culture of institutions. There should be policies to help students take the initiative themselves to manage resources. Could be part of JISC’s final report?”

Delegate: “How practical are shared services, to mitigate the dispersal of services, on the grounds that one big machine is more efficient?”

Martin Edney, Durham University: “HE is often accused of being quite insular. In the wider computer industry there are lots of similar initiatives taking place to reduce power usage.”

Delegate: “How about putting meters in departments, so they can see how much power they’re using?”

John McLaughlin, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills: “You’ve concentrated on the use of computers, but IT is more than that. It should be an exemplar in terms of environmental sustainability more generally.”

Peter James’ responses to delegates’ comments

These kinds of discussions are taking place outside of HE too, it’s a cutting-edge area and universities need to be central to it.

I agree that students are crucial. There is also a question about how much power students use themselves – for example, the increase in e-learning in the last 5 years, has that led to more printing, for example? We don’t know.

Self interest is definitely going to be the big driver. Financial responsibility makes people more engaged.

Regarding shared services: on 3 November JISC is putting on an event on that very topic. There is a strong case for economies of scale. That also makes it easier to access renewable energy. We could potentially set up green shared data centres that would be world-class.

Howard Noble’s responses

The problem with metering is that IT departments usually have to focus mainly on ensuring that the services are robust, and that’s how they are judged. The culture revolves about continuity and robustness, so IT managers don’t have much freedom to think about conserving power.

On the student side, there have been cases of students demanding energy information on freedom of information. Young people are generally more in tune with these kinds of issues. And for a start many are using laptops rather than desktops, which are more efficient anyway as they have to run off batteries.

Shared services – a potential problem could be that some institutions insist that servers have to be based on site.

Peter James’ responses

We should definitely be linking with other organisations. There is a lot of good stuff going on in this sector, which we need to promote outside the sector.

That’s where we ran out of time.

Rob Bristow thanked the speakers and delegates, and reminded everyone about the upcoming conferences on green computing, more details can be found on the JISC website under ‘events’.

Green Computing_presentation

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