Cutting costs: Power down

Despite moves by suppliers to reduce the power consumption of IT equipment, energy costs are still a major drain for many...

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Despite moves by suppliers to reduce the power consumption of IT equipment, energy costs are still a major drain for many organisations. Eric Doyle explains how costs can be cut further.

Despite signs of recovery in the IT industry, many companies are more cost-conscious than they have ever been. Although IT departments have probably felt the crunch more than anyone else, a drain on the IT budget is continuing when offices are empty at night and at weekends. To estimate the savings potential, count the number of PCs in the company, multiply this by 60 and place a pound sign in front of the answer. According to government figures, this is the potential annual saving if you take a few energy-efficiency steps. Put another way, in a company with 200 PCs, turning off all the computers and monitors every night and at weekends would save £12,000 a year.

Computers and monitors account for half the electricity used in an office and energy is being wasted every day, even by "energy saving" hardware. With every workstation on standby mode, the electricity meter continues to tick over at an alarming rate. Action Energy, a government-funded body, estimates that £90m is wasted annually by UK companies that leave computers turned on when not in use. Reducing this would produce a saving of one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Garry Felgate, director of Action Energy, said, "I was walking past a dealing house in London the other evening. Looking through the window I could see about 50 screens showing a Windows screen saver, even though it was a Sunday. Typically, these systems will be wasting about £63 more of electricity a year than if they were turned off."

A typical PC uses 40W when running, and between 20W and 30W on standby - monitors run on 80W, using 10W to 15W on standby.

Action Energy was set up by the government as an independent company to help businesses in the public sector to reduce the energy they use. This remit has been broadened to include all businesses, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking on larger scale environmental protection by engaging larger corporates and heavy industry.

"The good news is that if you use less energy you save more money," Felgate said. "We use that as a motivator, particularly for the small to medium-sized businesses. So we have a number of offerings. We have a helpline and, in certain cases, we will do a free survey of a site. If you are replacing equipment, such as a boiler, we can also offer interest-free loans."

More IT departments would already switch off their PCs but for the fact that it is difficult to ensure that everyone obeys the rule and remote roll-outs and software upgrades might be compromised. One solution is Nightwatchman, supplied by Windows management consultancy 1E, which can remotely power-down or turn on PCs with Wake-on-Lan network cards.

A Nightwatchman agent is loaded on to each computer and runs in the background until, at a scheduled time, it initiates a system power-down. If any programs are running, such as word processors or spreadsheets, the software saves any open files before closing down the system. Any enabled system can also be turned back on remotely when the IT team wants to load or upgrade software or apply a security patch.

The software will run even when the user has pressed the off button, but obviously not if the user switches off the wall socket or unplugs the PC.

Sumir Karayi, chief executive of 1E, says, "Of all the users in your company, 20% to 30% will not do what you ask them. Without power management, if you want to do a roll-out over a weekend, at least one quarter of the machines will be turned off. This means visiting each machine just to flick a switch."

Switching off PCs has other benefits, according to Karayi. "Switching PCs off can make them last longer. If you leave a computer running for too long, software inefficiencies mean it will eventually run out of memory. They are more functional if you reboot them now and again."

Although the prospect of software for saving energy seems ideal, Karayi admits that it is difficult to sell to IT departments as the typical response is, "We would like to use it, but we don't pay the bills - so we don't care."

He says, "We get more traction with sales linked to patch application because you have to reboot machines after applying a patch. To get the sales going on the energy savings front requires the IT and facilities departments to talk to each other. This is starting to happen and beginning to pay off."

Monitors are probably the most rewarding area for energy savings because they can be turned off and on quickly without having to wait for the operating system to shut down or boot up safely. The myth is that the screensaver can save energy, but the truth is that it doesn't reduce the monitor's power at all.

Action Energy advises that IT departments disable the use of screensavers in favour of enabling monitor power-saving from the Windows Control Panel. This reduces the power to about an eighth and can be further cut by teaching users to switch off the screen during lunch breaks and when leaving their desks for 15 minutes or more. If a monitor is left switched on overnight it uses the energy equivalent of a laser printer producing 800 A4 printouts.

Printers, scanners and other peripheral equipment used intermittently should have a sleep mode or be turned off when not required. Photocopiers also use large amounts of power and should be switched off at night.

Karayi admits that turning equipment off can be annoying to users unless it is implemented correctly. "We have a Swiss bank as a customer and they use Nightwatchman to turn the computers off at night and turn them on again in the morning. This has saved the company real money because when the staff arrive, their PCs are ready to use. In the past, employees would turn to their machines and go for a coffee while they booted up," he says.

Felgate adds that similar automation can be applied to peripheral equipment by investing in time-switches. Photocopiers and laser printers are particularly wasteful, both in the time taken to boot up and in the energy used. Cost-saving as a motivation is gaining ground, Felgate says. "Power costs are increasing and will continue to do so. Our argument is that any money you spend on energy that you do not need to spend is money that would have gone into your profits. Make savings and it goes straight to the bottom line," he says.

By chipping away at energy inefficiencies, the £300m spent on energy used by office equipment could be halved, according to figures from Action Energy. The company also says that 70% of the energy used in an air-conditioned office is accounted for by dissipating the heat produced by hardware. Using low-energy alternatives saves money, makes for more pleasant working conditions and helps to protect the environment.

Power-saving rules   

  • Introduce laptop computers to replace desktops because they use 90% less energy 
  • Make sure that unnecessary or unused equipment is disconnected from the mains supply 
  • Turn off PCs, monitors, printers, fax machines and copiers every night and at weekends 
  • Turn computers, copiers and other office equipment to low-power, standby mode when not in use 
  • Turn off equipment that is rarely used or will not be used for a long period of time. Even if it is impractical to turn off the computer, the monitor and any attached printer can be turned off 
  • Connect PCs, monitors, fax machines and computer peripherals to one power board so that they can all be switched off together 
  • Disable screensavers and use the power management facilities on the PC 
  • Favour ink-jet printers over laser technology because they also use 90% less energy 
  • Replace standard cathode-ray monitors with LCD monitors 
  • Ensure purchases comply with government Energy Star codes.

Case study: London Underground   

London Underground has a company-wide initiative to reduce power consumption which applies just as much to the IT department as it does to the staff working at the stations and on the trains. 

David Sterry, infrastructure architect at London Underground, is in charge of a 4,500 PC estate. When he started the energy-saving strategy, the estate was 3,500 strong and he reckons that using Nightwatchman saved the company £170,000 a year. With the increased population of PCs, this figure will approach £200,000. 

Apart from the savings in power, Nightwatchman has also improved time management. Sterry said, "We use Microsoft Systems Management Server to do roll-outs and we have had problems in the past when users switched off their machines despite being asked not to. Using Wake-on-Lan has improved our efficiency because we do not have to go out and track down offending machines." 

PCs in London Underground stations have to run 24 hours a day for safety reasons. Sterry is considering replacing these with Wyse Technology's thin clients because of their lower power requirements compared to PCs. 

He also expects to make more savings by choosing energy-efficient equipment wherever possible. Printers will be one area where newer low-power alternatives will be introduced. The company is also rolling out Windows XP and will be teaching users the basics of energy efficiency as part of a training course.

This was last published in March 2004

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