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Conserving through computing
January 30, 2009
St. Olaf College has long been committed to sustainability, with high-visibility projects that include a wind turbine that supplies up to one-third of the campus' energy and a new science complex designed to save enough energy to power 250 homes annually. Yet there are also a number of less-visible green initiatives under way, including recent changes in the campus' computing system that have resulted in significant energy savings.
The college's office of Information and Instructional Technologies (IIT) is virtualizing the servers on campus. "In a virtual server environment, we can run several different applications and services on a much smaller number of physical servers," notes Associate Director for Information Systems Craig Rice.
For example, a virtualization product called VMware has enabled IIT to use three high-availability, fault-tolerant servers to support what would otherwise have required 37 separate physical servers. Having fewer physical server systems saves on the energy needed to power and cool the machines as well as space.
In the last year St. Olaf has reduced the number of physical servers and power used for these systems by 50 percent, Rice says. IIT began virtualizing the college's servers in 2006, and about 60 percent are now virtualized. Rice anticipates that by this fall 80 percent of servers will be virtualized and the college will have just eight or nine physical servers -- a drastic decrease from the 49 physical servers on campus in 2006.
But the work doesn't end there. IIT has a number of other initiatives under way to help St. Olaf conserve energy and save money. They include:
- Making changes to desktop computer systems across campus this summer so that they will automatically power down after a certain level of inactivity. In addition to conserving energy, this will improve electronic security.
- Relying more on "software as a service" providers to host applications such as the college's email system, online job application system and event ticketing system. Last fall St. Olaf began using Google Apps for Education, a system that provides expanded and improved email and calendaring at no cost. "For St. Olaf to provide the same service would be very, very expensive," Rice notes.
- Continuing with the college's five-year replacement cycle for technologies rather than the three-year replacement cycles many institutions use. "My team adopted the philosophy that even an older computer can provide valuable service, perhaps just not with the same owner," notes Director of Information and Instructional Technologies Roberta Lembke. When a computer owner needs a new computer, the older unit is refurbished with a fresh software build, she says, and then sent to the next owner. If the computer has reached the end of its useful life, the IIT team harvests parts that can be reused at a later point and the rest is sent to a recycler. In some cases, Lembke notes, "we take the remains to a swap meet where computer buffs seek out old and hard-to-find parts."