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5 CIO Tips for Green Data Center Success

Before you build your case for a green data center, consider this advice from higher ed IT leaders who have been there first.

Is this the year you've decided to turn that room full of outdated servers and oscillating fans into a lean, green data center machine?

If your answer is yes, you're in good company: More than three-quarters (78 percent) of higher ed institutions either have programs to consolidate their data centers or are developing plans to do so, according to CDW-G's 2010 Energy Efficient IT Report, which surveyed more than 150 colleges and universities on green IT trends. The finding should come as no surprise, given that data centers now account for more than $7 billion per year in electricity costs in the United States alone. Who wouldn't want to streamline operations and save a bit of cash in the process?

To score on a project as expensive and complex as a green data center, a CIO needs to understand the best time to seize the opportunity. Don't miss "Taking the Shot" in the upcoming April print edition of Campus Technology, to find out how three institutions discovered their own "green readiness factor."

But before you jump on the green bandwagon, there's something you should know: Intention doesn't necessarily translate into results. While the CDW-G study found that 74 percent of surveyed institutions have or are outlining programs to manage energy use in IT, only 61 percent have succeeded in reducing energy costs by 1 percent or more.

So what's stalling some institutions' plans for sustainability? Senior management, for one, often places a higher priority on investment in other areas, according to the survey. Shrinking IT budgets in the face of a dismal economy are also to blame. But never fear: With a little finesse, you can realize your green data center goals.

1. Persuade with the purse.
"Make sure you have your facts and figures together when you go to the powers that hold the purse strings," advised Victor Gosnell, chief technology officer at Randolph College in Virginia.

Gosnell worked to make the case for streamlining server sprawl a "no-brainer" for the college's president and CFO. His pitch: By investing $86,000 in Dell EquaLogic hardware and VMWare software and virtualizing 25 of its existing servers, the school could reduce its energy costs by 56 percent over three years and avoid more than $200,000 in server refresh costs.

What's more, Gosnell was able to do it all by uncovering funds within his existing budget. He renegotiated the school's ISP contract, for example, for a yearly savings of $13,000. "In today's economy, people are looking for ways to save money, not spend money," he said.

The outcome?

Not only did the plan receive the go-ahead, but it proved so successful that the school has virtualized an additional 25 servers and is now projecting $30,000 in savings on electricity costs per year alone.

2. Support your school's commitment to sustainability.
While the environment may not be your impetus for a data center overhaul (reigning in energy costs, as above, may be the priority), that doesn't mean you can't leverage your school's green initiatives to help your cause.

When the IT staff at Loyola University Chicago found itself in need of a new data center location, the school's sustainability efforts in other areas--including the Center for Urban Environmental Research & Policy and a commitment to Silver LEED new construction--motivated the department to seek out the most energy-efficient technology available, said CIO Susan Malisch. "The things that we [in IT] can do to contribute to that reputation and those kinds of initiatives, we get good support for on this campus," she said.

3. Win over naysayers with research.
For schools just starting to go green, cutting-edge data center technology can seem daunting, said Link Alander, associate vice chancellor of technology services for Texas' Lone Star College System. That institution began its strategic vision for sustainability in 2008. "There are concepts that a lot of people have a hard time with because a traditional data center model says you do it this way," he said.

In Lone Star's new high-density/high-efficiency data center, for example, employing an indirect UPS system to minimize unnecessary battery charging was one point of opposition. "The transition from line power to UPS power is so fast, there's been no impact whatsoever to our equipment," said Alander. "Manufacturers will tell you this a thousand times over, but it still makes people nervous."

So how did he win over naysayers?

"With data," he said. "In many cases, [people] were not 100 percent aware ... how the industry has matured."

So each time Alander and his staff encountered a new green technology, they pored over case studies from Gartner, examined European data center standards, and even visited other customers who had implemented these new technologies. "Don't say no to anything until you've really evaluated what it could be," he advised.

4. Invest in training.
While case studies can inform green data center plans, attending in-person training is invaluable, according to Loyola's Malisch. She said she recommends that staff from facilities and IT attend the training together.

For instance, she sent both her director of infrastructure services and her facilities project manager to the Uptime Institute's weeklong workshop on data center design.

"It's not often that an IT person--much less a facilities project manager--has the opportunity to build a new data center, a space with some very specialized requirements," she said. "[Attending together] helps build a shared understanding of the requirements, the concerns, the terminology, and the opportunities--and that creates a stronger partnership."

5. Consider an unorthodox approach.
At Pennsylvania's Thomas Jefferson University, an $18 million electronic medical record project meant IT had to tackle the school's antiquated data center. Rather than spend $6 million to $8 million just to upgrade an outmoded campus data center with limited disaster recovery, TJU IT staff turned to an outsourced Tier 4 data center and disaster recovery facility at DBSi in nearby Valley Forge, PA. One-time costs for the move were $357,000, and ongoing operational costs are equivalent to what TJU IT was paying in its old data center.

"There's definitely a higher educational predisposition to do it in house," said TJU Senior Director of Infrastructure Services Doug Herrick. "But these days, with the economy, you have to ask yourself: What is your mission-critical goal? Is it to run a data center, or is it to provide services?"

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