“We raised the bar on what we want the federal government to accomplish,” the White House’s Edwin Pinero says.
Dec 31 2009

Energy Efficient, Fiscally Sound

Virtualization technologies have agencies seeing green — in more ways than one.

Federal agencies looking for ways to comply with new presidential directives on energy and the environment are getting a boost from server virtualization technologies that can significantly reduce hardware costs and energy consumption.

Virtualization software essentially enables servers to operate at maximum capacity — often increasing utilization rates by 10 to 15 times — thus allowing an organization to reduce significantly the number of physical servers needed. Pacific Gas & Electric estimates that for every server consolidated through virtualization, an organization can save as much as $600 annually on the cost to power and cool the server.

Many public- and private-sector organizations have begun implementing virtualization to achieve major business goals, such as consolidating servers and data centers, improving disaster recovery, and supporting the federal telework initiative, says Aileen Black, vice president of federal operations for VMware, a maker of virtualization infrastructure technology. But now government agencies are also eyeing virtualization to help them comply with mandates to achieve agency-specific goals related to energy and the environment.

“Federal agencies are grappling with huge energy issues today,” Black says. Some agencies, for example, occupy old buildings that have energy upgrade limitations tied to historical preservation restrictions and other challenges. “Agencies are looking at federal green information technology initiatives and searching for ways to conserve energy.”

Energy consumption by data centers and computer users is rising so swiftly that many companies are struggling to find sufficient power to run their servers. “The situation is probably worse for federal agencies,” Black says.

Virtualization’s ability to reduce energy consumption is not lost on companies that provide power and utilities. Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which serves about 15 million customers in northern and central California, is offering financial rebates up to $4 million per project to companies that implement virtualization technologies aimed at consolidating data centers and servers. The incentives are based on the amount of energy savings achieved through consolidation.

“Virtualization technology is helping our customers realize significant energy and cost savings, while addressing critical data center capacity issues,” says Helen Burt, senior vice president and chief customer official for PG&E, when the rebate program was announced in November.

Growing Green IT

Recent months have seen a flurry of activity aimed at strengthening green IT initiatives among agencies. Congress in December approved a law requiring Energy Star, a joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, to study and promote the use of energy-efficient computer servers and data centers in the United States. Energy Star has announced that it will submit its report to Congress in June.

In January, President Bush issued Executive Order 13423 on “Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The new order establishes a number of goals for addressing environmental concerns, including energy consumption by the government’s vast IT departments. “We raised the bar on what we want the federal government to accomplish,” says Edwin Pinero, federal environmental executive at the White House. “Every goal in the executive order is at least as stringent, and in nearly all the cases more stringent, than previously required.”

A case in point is a requirement that agencies improve energy intensity by 3 percent annually, or 30 percent over the next 10 years. “This goal is 50 percent tougher than the goal in the current energy bill,” says James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “We will try to accomplish in 10 years what the federal government was able to accomplish in energy efficiency in the last 20 years.”

The executive order also mandates increased buying of electronics products that are environmentally friendly under the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) program.

Virtualization technology can help agencies achieve these goals, VMware’s Black says. Analysts estimate that computer servers are often used at only 5 percent to 15 percent of their capacity. Virtualization programs let multiple applications run concurrently on servers, enabling organizations to reduce their total number of servers because they can operate each server at near or full capacity.

The Defense Contract Management Agency, for example, reduced the number of servers it needed from about 625 to 60 through a VMware implementation, says Peter Amstutz, chief of technical requirements and network design at DCMA. Amstutz says DCMA will avoid $1.25 million in equipment costs alone over the next three years, while also saving on energy and labor costs and improving the operational performance of the servers.

Another VMware customer, the Marines Corps Network Operations and Security Command, cut its hardware requirements by nearly 25 percent and consolidated servers from 30 to eight.

“Most of our customers recoup the cost of their licenses, even their enterprisewide licenses, within an average of 18 months. Some federal customers have done it within three to six months,” Black says.

VMware is currently working with government customers to precisely measure direct energy savings. But Black says a large commercial customer reduced its annual bill for powering and cooling its servers from $1.4 million to $187,000 — an 87 percent reduction in energy costs. VMware is helping one of its federal customers, the Postal Service, apply for PG&E’s rebate for virtualization projects.

“These kinds of reductions in energy use not only preserve resources but also give agencies more money to achieve other goals,” Black says.

Going for Green

The U.S. government is the world’s largest energy consumer. It also is the largest buyer of computer equipment.

Connaughton says the White House wants the government to use its buying power to promote and support environmentally friendly IT. “We believe in smart, well-informed, economically sensible, environmentally rational buying power — to lead by example in buying computers,” he says.

Although executive orders don’t have the force of law, they still carry profound weight with agencies, the White House’s Pinero says. “As far as the agencies are concerned, they are mandatory.”

To help keep agencies on track, the White House will be updating its environmental, energy and transportation scorecards on the President’s Management Agenda to reflect the goals and requirements in the new executive order. Green IT programs will help agencies get green scores. “We meet with senior officials and share their progress,” Pinero says. “No one wants a red dot next to their agency.”

Photo: Randall Scott