U.S. EPA puts its green IT where its mouth is

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may be one of the greenest IT organizations around — and it should be.

The EPA’s National Computer Center in North Carolina was one of the first data centres to receive a silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Network World’s National Correspondent Carolyn Duffy Marsan interviewed EPA’s CIO Molly O’Neill about virtualization, screen savers, recycling and other tips for creating environmentally friendly IT shops. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

How are you applying the EPA’s Energy Star guidelines to your IT department?

As we acquire computers or printers or monitors or imaging equipment, one of the things we do is ensure that we are procuring Energy Star products. But being energy efficient isn’t just about Energy Star. When we’re looking at our infrastructure, we’re looking at virtualization and consolidation. Then we’re looking at management support, operational controls and remote assistance [to improve energy efficiency]. And we’re looking at disposal to see if a piece of equipment is recyclable. We are designing our data centres to be energy efficient. It’s a life-cycle process that you need to look at.

Can you describe the life-cycle management process for green IT?

If we’re designing something new like a data centre, we think about building design. We also look for opportunities for IT consolidation and virtualization to optimize the existing [data centres] that we have. The second thing we look at is acquisition. We acquire Energy Star products, and we look to see if they are recyclable. Then we look at the management and support aspects of our infrastructure. Can we do printing in a more efficient way? Do we have controls on our systems like screen savers and system standbys that allow systems to hibernate and conserve energy? Do we have remote operations and assistants? The last piece is disposal. If we upgrade, how do we get rid of existing equipment? Can we meet the federal challenge to recycle all of our computer equipment? We ask ourselves: Are we designing our total IT infrastructure and the facilities that hold our IT equipment in a way that is environmentally friendly? Are we putting in appropriate cooling aspects in the floors under these data centres? Do we have system controls on our lights? Green IT is all of these things.

How far along are you at adopting this approach?

We are very far along. Our National Computer Center at Research Triangle Park, N.C., is a certified green building. We have designed the facility to be energy efficient. As we upgrade our servers, we are trying to be more energy efficient. We’re taking advantage of consolidation and virtualization of our servers and data storage. We’re putting in the management support and controls. All of our computers have screen savers. They go into hibernation. We recycle all of our computers. But even though we’re far ahead, we know there’s more we can be doing.

How do you track energy usage?

We track from an energy perspective every major EPA facility, and Research Triangle Park is one of them. It’s tracked through our facilities group, and [the data] is communicated out to every assistant administrator on a quarterly basis. We talk about where there have been increases and where there have been decreases. There is a discussion at the very highest levels of this organization about energy use. Sometimes the people responsible for purchasing and buildings and the CIO are at different levels of an organization. They need to come together to track energy usage. When you’re making these improvements, you want to track if they are actually working and if they translate into saving money. [Management] needs to know that if they are investing in green IT infrastructure that they are seeing results.

Do you know how much energy the EPA’s IT department and data centre operations consume?

Currently, EPA does not measure the power consumption of the IT department separately from the total energy consumption at each facility. However, the agency has funded a project that will install additional meters in the NCC to enable us to distinguish between the IT and the total building energy use. This capability should come on line in 2008. Once EPA begins measuring and can assess the data gathered, EPA will set targets and identify mechanisms for reducing power consumption.