Bottom Up and Top Down: Making IT a Key Part of the Campus Sustainability Effort

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Key Takeaways

  • IT’s voracious consumption of energy means IT organizations must be part of sustainability efforts.
  • IT can also enable solutions that contribute to sustainable practices across campus.
  • Indiana University followed a three-level approach to integrating IT with university-wide sustainability plans: personal practice, operations, and policy and planning.
  • By reaching out to the surrounding community, IU took a leadership position in sustainability efforts, including IT sustainability — and communication is key.

Information technology is regarded globally as a voracious consumer of energy. According to a 2007 research paper issued by the United Kingdom’s Global Action Plan, IT accounts for 10 percent of the electrical usage in the U.K.1 In the United States, Stanford University estimates that IT accounts for 15 percent of its overall electrical use.2

Although IT adds to the problem of energy consumption on campus, it can also be a partner in the sustainability solution — by contributing to overall energy reduction and by enabling sustainable practices in other areas across the university. In fact, according to a 2007 NetworkWorld story,3Gartner Group named “green IT” number one in its “Top 10 Strategic Technologies 2008.” Interestingly, several of the other top 10 technologies in Gartner’s list play roles in sustainable computing across the enterprise, including virtualization, unified communications, and the web as a platform.

Sustainability is no longer a fringe project in IT organizations. At Indiana University (IU), University Information Technology Services (UITS) plays a large and growing role in IU’s sustainability initiatives. That wasn’t always the case, however. IT’s role grew organically and will continue to evolve over time. The story of how IT got engaged at IU, and some of the payoffs of that engagement, might have relevance for other institutions considering a similar role for IT.

How IT Came On Board

At IU, IT spans a wide range of systems and services, including enterprise and research systems and infrastructure. IT encompasses data centers with considerable energy demands and complicated back-up systems, networks and network management, campus and residence hall telephony, computing labs and classrooms, security and policy, and a range of support and communications systems and services. In this environment sustainability involves complex challenges, particularly at a multi-campus institution like IU. The initial hurdles are universal — knowing where to begin a sustainability program and getting past the sense that we need to do it all at once with everyone on board.

IU launched its sustainability initiative by doing what most universities do in these situations: it formed a task force. Convened in March 2007 by a then-IU vice president for administration, this 16-member task force engaged more than 100 faculty, staff, and students at IU Bloomington to examine campus issues of environmental sustainability across academic, administrative, and operational programs. Among its charges was developing campus sustainability indicators and building a long-term sustainability framework.

IT’s initial involvement began with the interest, commitment, and passion of Kristin Hanks, a PhD candidate at the IU School of Informatics and Computing who also served as a campus student intern. She convinced her intern program to add sustainable computing to the university initiative. The Office of the Vice President for Information Technology, with its university-wide purview, agreed to sponsor this effort and later established a role for a graduate assistant to coordinate IT sustainability efforts, with Hanks the first to serve in that role. (See “About the Sustainable Computing Internship” for more information on the program.) IT also became a member of the task force and eventual steering committee for sustainability.

As the first step, Hanks interviewed IT staff across IU about how sustainable IT was at IU and how the university might improve its standing. From there she developed a grassroots (bottom up) view of where IT stood in terms of sustainability. She then used that ground-level understanding — and her informatics research background — to make a compelling case for the central role IT could play in developing and implementing plans for responsible environmental stewardship.

While Hanks talked to people and gathered data, at the policy level IU developed “Empowering People: Indiana University’s Strategic Plan for Information Technology.” Planners included sustainability among IU’s strategic directions, signaling a clear institutional commitment with resources behind it. This made environmental stewardship a current priority at IU and ensured it a place in future plans.

A Philosophy in Three Parts

This quick snapshot of IT’s early activity in sustainability shows two main directions:

  1. At the grass-roots level an individual committed to sustainability began gathering data, talking to IT staff about the energy consumed by their systems and personal practices, and building awareness of the UITS interest in sustainability efforts.
  2. At the Cabinet level, planners were building sustainability practices into the strategic plan that would guide the development of IT for years to come.

This two-part movement encapsulates what IU discovered about successful sustainability initiatives: they are both bottom up and top down in that they involve efforts to change individual practice and high-level policy. Both personal practice and top-down directives can influence operations. Sustainability then, involves three levels of activity:

  • Policy and planning
  • Operations
  • Personal practice

Policy can initiate change at the operational level, prompting people to change their habits. For example, IU has long advocated the use of Oncourse CL, the university’s Sakai-based online learning and collaboration environment (policy level). Over time, Oncourse use (operations) replaced much of the exchange of paper materials that used to be routine in teaching and learning (practice).The flow of influence can move in the opposite direction as well. When people suggest operational changes that alter personal practices, it can signal to the organization that the time is right for changes in policy. At IU, students requested paper recycling and duplex printing, the IT organization put those services in place, and leadership realized that conserving paper should be a university-wide initiative.

The process of initiating change toward sustainability interweaves policy, operations, and personal practice. Activity in one area can ignite movement in another, and so on, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Effective Change Occurs Across Levels

If change is multidirectional, sustainability is all-inclusive, involving everything from principle and mindset to strategic positioning. Understanding this concept can help in launching a sustainability initiative. A common dilemma in creating an IT role in sustainability is knowing where to start. Referring to Figure 1, IU’s first steps took place simultaneously at the levels of personal practice and policy. IU also found it useful to think in terms of classes of projects. Small projects that can be quickly put in place, with fairly contained impact, can be up and running while the organization plans longer term initiatives that require complex negotiation. It’s possible to make progress even while you plan.

In formulating strategic directions in sustainability, UITS opted for high-impact targets across the difficulty spectrum, bridging policy, operations, and personal practice. “Empowering People” calls on the IT organization to:

  • Establish and promote high standards of environmental stewardship through communicating best practices in energy-efficient computing
  • Leverage virtualization to pare servers and extend life cycles
  • Consider “environmental friendliness” in purchasing decisions

At this point, UITS had taken several important first steps on the policy/planning level:

  • Brought IT into the campus-wide effort
  • Defined a coordinating role for IT
  • Made sustainability part of the strategic planning process

The hard part was yet to come — outlining responsibilities.

Operations and Collaboration

In environmental stewardship, the university is one body working toward solving a common problem. A successful initiative involves the extended community — sustainability is all our jobs. Given that IT is part of everything the university does, the field for IT-based sustainability initiatives is wide open. Communication, dedication, and passion for the cause play important roles in creating a community effort. IU’s IT sustainability intern was a skilled communicator, with a passion for the cause. Her energy and enthusiasm helped people across the IU community feel empowered to generate ideas and take action.

One important idea involving the personal practice and operations levels of activity in Figure 1 came from staff at the School of Education. At IU, it’s not uncommon to leave computer equipment on after hours, on weekends, and during breaks — in part so that it can be patched, backed up, and updated. The School of Education piloted a four-week energy reduction program in spring 2009 that turned that practice on its head. During the pilot, IT staff adjusted the basic input/output system settings on desktop computers. The computers went into deep sleep, using almost no energy, after 2.25 hours of continuous inactivity.

Overall, 400 computers in the building were included in the energy reduction pilot. Measuring the energy savings on a cluster of 11 desktop computers, staff discovered 48 percent less energy was consumed. To try and keep the effects of other, uncontrollable environmental factors from their measurements, IT staff also persuaded over 100 people to install the GoGreen desktop gadget on their individual machines, which recorded how much energy they were saving. (See “Measuring Energy Savings” for information about estimating energy savings.)

For a cluster of 11 desktop computers, the adjustment resulted in 48 percent less energy consumed. For an entire wing of offices, that meant nearly 31 percent less energy consumed. Energy use for the entire building dropped by between 3 percent and 6 percent during the project, despite increased overall traffic in the building at the end of the spring semester. Using the university’s off-peak rate of 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour, we estimated savings of $21.95 per year for each computer. Implementing this approach in a single school the size of the School of Education could save the university over $10,000 a year in addition to reducing our environmental impact.

Measuring and aggregating the savings from this simple change in personal practice across one school suggests value in expanding the pilot to the operational level. On a strategic level, the pilot suggested a new direction: push upgrades and patches during the day. However, to be sustainable, change must take user practices into account. So on an operational level, the pilot provided users with a Wake on LAN (WOL) program so that they could log into school servers at night and “wake” their computers remotely. To encourage personal engagement, the pilot also provided a GoGreen desktop gadget, which addressed a fundamental principle of sustainability: each individual effort counts. The gadget allowed users to track their own energy savings in real time and see how their efforts contributed to the aggregate savings of the School of Education.

Figure 2 shows individual contributions (the 11 machines in the pilot) to energy savings and the larger contribution of all who used the gadget (107 people at the time of the pilot), spread across buildings. For very little initial investment, these steps saved energy and budgets and got people involved, adding momentum to the grassroots green movement at IU.

Figure 2

Figure 2. The GoGreen Desktop Gadget

If this operational change were implemented as policy, the savings to the university would be substantial. Extrapolating from initial findings, Hanks estimated that across the university, IU could save more than $500,000 a year in energy costs and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change, by more than 15,000 tons a year.

Widening the Scope: Cross-University Initiatives

Launching a contained, school-based pilot is easier than moving an entire university toward new practices. One strategy for building broad engagement is to appeal to a universal concern — in IU’s case, budget. Framing sustainability in terms of saving revenue, especially today, can build participation. Operational strategies like changing hardware purchasing and use patterns and making server practices more efficient can lower IT energy consumption in every department, school, and university facility. But such changes are not always an easy sell — reducing energy consumption is a relatively low priority for most campus IT users. Also, while server sprawl is significant, it’s hard to change a practice based on personal preference — people want physical access to their servers. That said, fiscal arguments often trump personal preferences.

In this case, IU elevated a specific energy-saving solution — virtualization — to the policy level, affirming it as a university strategic direction in “Empowering People.” As such, it would then drive both operations and personal practice. The initiative leveraged the ability of UITS to consolidate, standardize, automate, and virtualize. Branded Intelligent Infrastructure, the initiative is emerging as a key component of the university sustainability effort and of IU’s internal cloud computing resources. It eliminates the need for replication across IU of systems, servers, network equipment, software, and heating and cooling equipment. Intelligent Infrastructure provides schools and departments with virtual systems and storage in the more energy-efficient IU Data Center. Figure 3 shows the IU Data Center with its bunkered design, energy-efficient structure, and more efficient HVAC system. The Data Center hosts IU’s Intelligent Infrastructure of virtual machines and backup systems, using fewer racks to store increasingly larger numbers of virtual systems.

Figure 2

Figure 3. IU Data Center

Along with substantial cost benefits, IU’s Intelligent Infrastructure makes it possible to continually innovate, refine, and adapt as operational needs evolve. Its potential for reducing energy consumption is enormous. Operationally, virtualization is gaining ground. In IU’s first large push to virtual platforms, UITS deactivated over 300 servers. Today that number is more than 1,000. Virtualization reportedly will increase energy efficiency by 25 to 30 percent.4 It will also increase server utilization, making the best use of IU’s resources. On a personal level, virtualization saves resources by moving system management cycles, which are replicated across departments, to UITS, where they are consolidated in the Data Center. Metrics make a compelling case for changes in personal practice, operations, and policy.

Widening the Scope: The Commercial Cloud

This server consolidation effort also allows IU to take advantage of the commercial cloud when there are clear benefits to doing so. The cloud’s significantly larger scale offers an eco-friendly solution, along with even more efficient uses of virtual computing. Providers can dedicate significant resources to finding ways to reduce electricity, one of its big costs. They can save capital by locating data centers in areas known for their temperate climate or abundant in renewable energy sources.5

Maintaining IU Webmail for students, for example, required considerable funding and server infrastructure. Students expected Webmail to offer the rich functionality of commercial products. This put pressure on the IT organization to find the resources to transform Webmail into a service that could compete with commercial products and to keep adding to its energy-intensive infrastructure. The cost-effective and eco-friendly operational solution was to move to cloud services, specifically Imail (powered by Microsoft) and Umail (powered by Google). This relieved IU of the major, long-term challenge of providing a scalable, local e-mail solution comparable to the offerings that better-funded commercial entities can provide. IU’s vended e-mail services now host 80,000 student accounts. The institution needs to work through the security and privacy issues associated with such services, but IU believes that commercial services are the better solution for student e-mail.

Involving the Community

At the end of the day, policy and planning initiatives, coupled with operational changes, will affect large-scale change only if individuals’ personal beliefs align with those efforts. In IU’s experience, our sustainable computing intern — a strong communicator who was passionate about sustainability — proved key in building engagement among people and departments at the university level and in the surrounding communities.

Hanks helped develop a project that combined awareness with opportunity: free e-waste recycling days. The project fostered awareness of e-waste disposal and provided individuals with a choice in terms of personal practice. It created a partnership between UITS, the sustainability task force, and the IU Purchasing Department. It also engaged the extended IU community, the public, schools, government entities, nonprofits, and small businesses, becoming an all-inclusive community effort. (See “eWaste Recycle Days Background” for more information.)

The three-day event was open to all IU campuses and surrounding communities. Hanks engaged more than 20 student volunteers, who spent two weekdays collecting recycling from public and private schools, universities, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. On the third day, the program opened to the public. Collection points set up at central locations on the Bloomington campus and the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, staffed by volunteers, made it convenient for people to drop off their old equipment. Logistics representatives from Apple hired semi trucks and manual labor to staff the collection points and unload e-waste equipment from the personal and institutional vehicles of Bloomington and Indianapolis residents.

Rain did nothing to discourage a huge turnout from local businesses and schools. The result was stunning. Figure 3 shows e-waste collection on the first day of the event. Figure 4 shows the third day, when the event was open to the public. On that day, IU had three recycling collection lines going, which stayed full almost the entire time. The new UITS sustainability graduate assistant, the sustainability task force, and IU Purchasing have begun planning for this year’s event.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Day 1 of IU’s eWaste Recycle Days

Figure 4

Figure 4. Day 3, the Public Day, of IU’s eWaste Recycle Days

Nothing donated during the eWaste Recycle Days was processed for resale — 100 percent of the equipment was recycled. IU hopes to operationalize this event for the university and surrounding communities and make it part of a consolidated take-back/recycling program, facilitating trade-in and trade-up agreements and other measures to keep old electronics out of landfills.

Continuing the Conversation

The eWaste Recycle Days were an effective conversation starter. The media blitz made public IU’s investment in sustainable practices. The service the event provided was an incentive to take part, making it much easier for individuals to recycle their electronic equipment than if they had to handle the effort on their own — which frequently results in equipment dumped in landfills rather than recycled. The event drew participating constituencies — the university, the community, schools, homes, and offices — into a partnership of practice.

The e-waste recycling event was an easy first step. Participants enjoyed the sense of being part of a larger effort for good. And it offered a practical way to engage individuals in sustainability on the level of personal practice. IU plans to invite the community to join us in next steps — perhaps involving energy-efficient computing or environmentally friendly purchasing decisions. Overall, the event presents another opportunity to grow a grassroots effort into day-to-day operations, institution- and community-wide. It helps answer the question, “How do we make sustainability sustainable?”

Along with the three interconnected layers on which sustainability initiatives operate (Figure 1), three key ingredients help make them successful: passion, collaboration, and communication. In our experience, communication is the binding ingredient of IU’s sustainability efforts.

Sustaining progress involves communicating measurable results and showing that, particularly in the case of IT, many of these efforts will pay for themselves. With very little publicity, the IU School of Education energy-reduction pilot captured the attention of the IT community campus-wide. Project metrics revealed a huge potential for financial savings and carbon reductions. In addition, the School of Education team welcomed opportunities to share their experiences: the school’s Power Management website includes general and technical FAQs and reports on the pilot study. Project results were shared at a university-wide IT conference.

Effective sustainability communications come down to awareness and education. Most people agree with the concept of sustainability but struggle with the practicalities. Models of sustainable practices can help people reshape their IT habits. These models don’t need to be complex — they can be as simple as a campaign on powering down peripherals and monitors by putting them on a power strip. The single step of turning off those devices at night and on weekends can save around 31 percent of the energy a given workstation consumes.6

What’s Next?

Certain steps are obvious, in that efforts along those lines have shown success so far. The IT organization plans to:

  • Engage individuals by building a culture of awareness.
  • Continue to educate.
  • Build on what’s worked.
  • Affirm the value of participation in the effort by building it into university policy. The IU IT strategic plan makes a good start on policy, stating: “Environmental Stewardship is an important effort for the whole of IU, and IT will be a major component of that effort.”
  • Sustain the momentum.
  • Consider other areas where IT can enable cost savings. For example, digitize more print sources, teleconference, and move to online university phonebooks.7

IU also formalized the sustainability internship as a graduate assistantship that provides coordination across IT’s efforts. The important deliverable from Hanks’s second year in that role was to solidify sustainability efforts — and forward-looking goals — in the IT organization and the extended IT community.

The university’s message is that we’re all partners in sustainability. The current IT intern will continue to raise awareness with communication the key. The IT organization will enhance its sustainability web presence, ensuring it ties into the IU Office of Sustainability website. Then we plan to tap into social networking and grassroots forums to engage IU’s many community members interested in sustainable IT. IU still needs to address the habitual barriers that stand in the way of large-scale changes, encouraging new routines that embed environmental stewardship into university life. The new strategic plan will help at the policy level by establishing guidelines for IT units to report on their progress toward sustainable computing. (See “Sustainability in the IT Strategic Plan.”)

Concern about budgetary constraints will also contribute, given the considerable budgetary savings possible with many green initiatives.

Passion, communication, and collaboration will be required to create new habits that promote sustainable computing. Building a university culture of environmental stewardship requires systemic changes in strategy, operational tasks, and personal practice, from the bottom up and the top down.

  1. Global Action Plan, “Green ICT Handbook: A Guide to Green ICT,” 2009.
  2. Sustainable Stanford, “Sustainability in Information Technology.”
  3. John Brodkin, “Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2008,” NetworkWorld, October 9, 2007.
  4. The Uptime Institute, “Improving Data Center Uptime and the World’s IT Productivity Through Benchmarking and Collaborative Learning,” available online to institute members.
  5. See Michael Graham Richard, “How Google Fights Power Consumption,” posted on Treehugger, November 20, 2005; and Emma Stewart and John Kennedy, “The Sustainability Potential of Cloud Computing: Smarter Design,” posted on Environmental Leader, July 20, 2009.
  6. Chris VanHorn, “Computing Energy Conservation Recommendations,” Cornell University Facilities Services, September 8, 2005.
  7. IU’s initiative to shift to an online phone directory has cut production from an annual 50,000 books in 2006–07 to 7,500 in 2009. Beyond saving resources, the online directory offers the advantages of digital content: rapid updates, reverse look-up, and interactive campus maps.