Before “going green” became a household phrase, the U.S. Postal Service began a long-term sustainability transition. At its core is the organization’s effort to consolidate down to only two data centers to support 32,000 USPS facilities and 550,000 employees.
The project started in 2004 when USPS IT staff mapped out the then-novel strategy of reducing the agency’s data centers from five, which were spread across the country, to two: a primary center in Eagan, Minn., and a secondary facility in San Mateo, Calif.
“During the transition, which we completed in 2007, we also started virtualizing,” recalls Thomas G. Day, chief sustainability officer for the USPS. “Department executives not only were hesitant, but many also literally said ‘I want to be able to go to Eagan and put my hands on the server running my applications.’ ”
Server consolidation is a major part of the strategy at many agencies as they seek to meet federal sustainability mandates. Others — among them, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Labor Relations Board — also are engaging in green practices, such as buying energy-efficient computers and adopting communications technologies that reduce the need for travel. They are finding that these practices not only reduce pollution, such as greenhouse gas emissions, but also save money.
At USPS, Day credits former Postmaster General John E. Potter with patiently, but firmly, shifting the organizational mindset away from one of resistance to virtualization, which requires stakeholders to give up some direct control of their servers. Potter managed this shift primarily by leveraging budgetary policy.
“All IT funding became controlled by central IT, with departments charged for their expenses,” Day explains. “Since technology is one of the most significant line items in every departmental budget, the focus shifted from discussing virtualization’s merits to reducing IT costs.”
Fast-forward to today, where the agency’s computing infrastructure — the third-largest in the world — includes 8,000 virtual servers running on 1,000 physical HP blades with an EMC storage area network (SAN) that handles more than 14.3 petabytes of data.
“Due to virtualization and other data management strategies like deduplication, we’re using existing facilities,” Day says. “This means we avoided spending $100 million to build a new data center and the ongoing energy expense to power it.”
USPS also is employing technologies such as video conferencing to reduce regional leaders’ need to make annual trips to Washington, D.C., and duplex printing, which saves reams of paper. And Energy Star–compliant equipment in data centers and on desktops is the norm rather than the exception (Energy Star is a government-backed program to promote energy efficiency).
According to Day, standardization is integral to many of the benefits. For example, to consolidate hardware vendors, USPS deployed HP printers across the enterprise.
“Previously, we had many different printer manufacturers,” Day says. “Standardizing permits centrally controlled power management features as well as printing in monochrome and duplexing by default.”
USPS estimates that double-sided printing has reduced paper use by 4.3 million pages each month, saving the agency $30,000 a month. And monochrome printing saves $50,000 in color ink. Practices such as setting computers to go into standby or sleep mode have resulted in using as much as 40 percent less power for those devices.
According to Simon Mingay, research vice president with Gartner Research, other effective greening strategies include regular updating of hardware and finding innovative ways to address data center cooling. “For most agencies, it’s about continuing to replace equipment with more sustainable devices and strategies,” he says. “In the data center, this includes moving to hot- and cold-aisle layouts.”
These strategies are in use at HUD as the department takes further steps following a multiyear data consolidation and virtualization effort. The original consolidation, which began in 2005, reduced power consumption by 22 percent and improved mainframe processing speed by 92 percent. Over the same period, the department’s disk storage grew 17-fold, and the IT staff virtualized more than 1,000 servers.
The department requires sustainability efforts from its industry partners as well.
“Although our data center is outsourced to HP, the contract requires green IT practices such as using data center heat to warm office space,” explains Mike Milazzo, deputy CIO for IT operations at HUD.
“Additionally, we mandate regular equipment refreshes,” he says. “And, we also require acquisition of EPEAT-registered hardware for all types of computing devices.” (EPEAT is an environmental rating that helps identify greener computers and other electronic equipment.)
More recently, the data center layout moved to a hot aisle/cold aisle strategy. “Floor tiles with the air conditioning vents are located in the hot aisle,” Milazzo says. “Tiles without vents are placed in the cold aisles.” This layout improves the efficiency of cooling efforts in the data center.
HUD is also implementing new HD video conferencing capabilities to reduce travel. “We’ve just completed a conferencing modernization by adopting LifeSize Room 220 systems for our headquarters and regional offices,” Milazzo reports. “In our field offices, we’re using LifeSize Team 220 systems.”
Yet another important project aims to slash the office equipment footprint at all of HUD’s 83 facilities. “Instead of single-function printers, we’re deploying multifunction devices,” he says. “For printers alone, we’ll reduce units by five or six to one.”
Reaping Green Rewards
Even at smaller agencies, such as the National Labor Relations Board, reining in server sprawl helps reap green rewards.
In its case, the NLRB evolved as a decentralized IT organization. Each of its 51 offices across the United States had its own server room. Additionally, the agency supported 13 siloed legacy case-tracking systems. In early 2007, the modernization began. “At the time, our infrastructure included over 100 dedicated servers, which housed production and very limited test environments,” says Bryan Burnett, NLRB’s CIO.
Because 1,600 of the agency’s 1,800 employees accessed case management files, NLRB programmers used case management as the hub of a next-generation enterprise platform. Dubbed NxGen, the development leveraged various Oracle applications. For content management, automated document assembly and archiving, the NLRB team selected solutions from EMC.
NxGen allowed NLRB’s IT staff to consolidate the far-flung server rooms into two data centers. Today the infrastructure includes two SANs and 155 virtual machines operating on 32 host servers that run full development, test and production environments and systems. “So far, we’ve retired our three largest legacy applications, with the balance to retire over the next two fiscal years,” Burnett says. “We’ve also consolidated eight e-mail environments onto one enterprise Exchange platform.”
NxGen offers another sustainability benefit: electronic issuance and service of legal decisions. During the first two fiscal years of NxGen’s operation, the NLRB delivered nearly 800 decisions electronically, saving almost $21,000 on printing and postage alone. “And, we expect these savings to increase significantly when our field offices also begin e-delivery,” Burnett says.
This year, the agency plans to replace 1,000 computers with EPEAT-registered notebooks and to consolidate voice, data and video conferencing onto a unified communications platform. “At the end of the day, unified communications just makes sense,” says Burnett. “This is particularly true as we move to more telework.”
The UC effort also helps the agency address Executive Order 13589, issued in November 2011, which limits the number of different computing devices issued to a single employee. “Not every employee needs multiple IT assets, such as a desktop and a laptop, personal and network printers, mobile and smartphones and a tablet,” Burnett says. “We intend to keep winnowing that down, which reduces our carbon footprint.”