The Intersection Between Information Technology and Energy Efficiency

Because of the way school facilities and technology funding has been separated and compartmentalized, we tend to think in narrow terms about how we approach new construction and modernization projects, information technology (IT) procurement, and IT system planning. There are major benefits to be drawn from a coordinated approach to these issues, which involves a comprehensive plan for IT structure. With this plan, we can design more energy efficient IT systems as our networks and data centers are built into our facilities and as we procure the equipment we plug into our networks.

The first priority has to be solving the needs of the district – administrative, business and, most importantly, pedagogical needs. Too often, because infrastructure development through the facilities program is developed in fits and starts, we end up with numerous, non-integrated, critical systems pulling from multiple databases. This approach can lead to inefficient, more costly IT systems that waste a lot of expensive electrical energy. A comprehensive approach can save money on equipment, infrastructure and energy.

The way that processing is distributed, meaning whether data is processed and/or stored locally at the workstation level, or on networked servers with the workstation really just providing a convenient input/output station, can substantially impact energy efficiency. That is, centralized processing, which went out with the personal computer revolution over the last quarter century, has now become a potentially more energy efficient computing model, allowing processing and data storage to be centralized on fewer, more efficient servers maintained in more efficient facilities. Ten separate personal computers running hard drives, processors and cooling fans use a lot more energy than a single server that can do all the same work with far less energy.

Such a “thin client,” a workstation that uses network processing and storage, may use as little as 11 watts, which is about the same as a bathroom night light. Moving to a “virtual desktop” system can also increase in consistency of computing, reduce cost, and increase mobility. Instead of purchasing new personal computers, the district can simply buy the input/output hardware (monitors, keyboards, mice) and a much less energy consuming processor in a box. Moreover, a little known factor that affects a building’s energy efficiency is plug load: how many devices are plugged into a single location, drawing an unbalanced amount of electricity at one spot. This taxes the electrical system, particularly around a heavy plug load (we have all seen the four-eight plug-in outlets that handle computer, fax machines, copiers, etc. all together), which actually causes electrical energy to leak out of the wiring. Also, as more electricity is used in a given room, more heat is generated, so use of the HVAC (the heating ventilation and air conditioning) systems must be increased in order to maintain the appropriate room temperature.

The negative examples can all be avoided, and the positive examples realized, by having a comprehensive IT strategy that is then coordinated with facilities development. Instead of using the standard model, with lots of outlets that are expected to be used all over a classroom building, outlets can be provided with the knowledge that they will be used only intermittently, or for less energy-intensive appliances. The facilities department needs to plan for the centralized data center and the networking infrastructure, while the IT department needs to plan licensing and software for the centralized processing and data center and “thin client” workstations, while the administration needs to develop appropriate acceptable use policies based on there being no local hard drives that site staff may think of (however mistakenly) as their own and train staff on networked software and printing facilities, among other things.

This approach requires coordination among departments that sometimes do not communicate well with one another. But the benefits cannot be overlooked: substantially reduced energy consumption and expenses; in some cases, reduced hardware, software licensing and maintenance costs; and more secure data and better compliance with acceptable use policies. There are convenient alternative procurement methods that may be used to procure the hardware, software and even construction services needed, based on anticipated energy savings, that can make the procurement of high value, high quality systems more efficient.

Ultimately, it pays to take an integrated approach to IT and energy efficient facilities.

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