Sustainable Technology at WPI

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Key Takeaways

  • A combination of sustainable technology initiatives at WPI has successfully reduced the university’s costs, carbon emissions, and energy consumption.
  • Converting to energy-efficient desktop systems, recycling equipment through a three-phase life cycle, and encouraging power management has paid off for WPI.
  • Purchasing energy-efficient servers, using a terminal server cluster for virtual labs, and virtualizing single-task and single application servers replicates desktop success in the data center.
  • Simple changes in printing practices through virtual collaboration and installing power-management devices in electronic-classroom equipment further supports WPI’s sustainability efforts.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI; for more information about the university see “About WPI”) seeks to foster a community that produces sustainable solutions in all facets of campus life: teaching, research, service, and administrative operations. The university strives to model the three tenets of sustainability (environmental preservation, economic prosperity, and social equity for all members of society)1 in every endeavor. WPI recently solidified this commitment through the creation of its President’s Task Force on Sustainability, which provides guidance and leadership for all of our sustainability efforts. The university has selected a number of strategic initiatives that further its sustainability agenda, including sponsoring recycling programs, installing solar energy collectors, and reducing energy consumption. In February 2007, the WPI Board of Trustees voted to endorse a policy calling for all future buildings on campus to be environmentally friendly and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certified structures.2 (For more information on WPI’s sustainability initiatives, see “WPI’s Non-IT Sustainability Efforts.”)

For its part, WPI’s Information Technology Division has committed to supporting the university’s sustainability efforts by reducing the environmental impact of WPI’s IT systems and operations. These changes can be seen campus-wide on desktops, in classrooms, and in the WPI data center. One of our greatest findings from these efforts has been that “going green” has some surprising bottom-line benefits.

Desktop Computing

WPI embarked on its green computing efforts by investigating ways to reduce the energy consumption of our enterprise desktop architecture. We have invested in systems that use the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which is a system in which manufacturers declare their products’ conformance to a comprehensive set of environmental criteria in eight environmental performance categories. Our workstations are certified at the EPEAT Gold (or most efficient) level, which — when combined with our decision to move exclusively to LCD monitors (see WPI students using our equipment in the Figure 1 slideshow) — allows WPI to provide energy-efficient equipment across the university. We are constantly mindful of the state of our sustainability potential, and our purchasing habits continue to change as more green technology becomes available. During the summer of 2009, WPI began deployment of new workstations that contain 88 percent efficient power supplies, meaning that 88 percent of the desktop’s input power is utilized, creating only a 12 percent loss (compared to a 30–40 percent loss just a few years ago).

Figure 1. A WPI Computer Lab
Photos courtesy of WPI

In addition to providing ecologically responsible technology to our community, WPI also recycles most of our computer equipment. Once our laboratory and desktop workstations reach the end of their first life (typically in three to five years), they are rebuilt for a second life for use by students in work-study positions or in clubs and associations. From there, many of our workstations move on to a third life in the Worcester region’s secondary schools; WPI donates the computers for use in laboratory or computer learning classrooms. The donated machines are repaired if necessary, their hard drives are wiped clean of WPI data and software, and a base operating system is reinstalled with the license obtained from the hardware vendor when the workstation was purchased.

In terms of power management, WPI’s Information Technology Division recently (beginning in fall 2009) embarked on a pilot test of software to help manage the power status of our laboratory and managed office workstations. Specifically, the software allows us to direct desktops to enter a reduced-power state during idle periods, thereby further lowering the university’s power consumption and thus our total spending on electricity. Initially, we have targeted approximately 400 managed machines in nearly 30 public laboratories and classrooms and approximately 500 of our 1,800 managed workstations (see Table 1). The software also provides wake on LAN (WOL) functionality to assist with off-hour system updates, as well as reporting tools to demonstrate measurable energy and cost savings for the university — which we expect will be significant with eventually over 2,000 desktop PCs powering down automatically for a minimum of 8 hours per day. Although the software testing is new, the idea is not; WPI’s help desk has long encouraged energy conservation by distributing reminders to the community about the ecological importance of shutting down unnecessary equipment overnight, during long weekends, and for periods when the university is closed.

Table 1. Estimated Yearly Power Management Savings

  No. of Machines Cost Savings Electricity Savings CO2 Saved
Lab Machines 400 $15,790 157,903 kWh 186,547 lbs
Workstations 500 $19,738 197,379 kWh 233,185 lbs

As WPI continues to seek new and innovative ways to proliferate green, sustainable computing on campus, we will continue to advocate for a paradigm shift toward single, centralized, and multi-function printing in departments. We also actively encourage double-sided printing whenever appropriate and spread the word about our sustainability efforts throughout the campus community. For the WPI community, this concept is not only a departure from individual desktop printing but also a change in the way they work across campus: We seek to collaborate electronically using our learning management system combined with Microsoft SharePoint technologies and other collaboration tools to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of academic and administrative work. This approach has the additional benefit of substantially reducing printing of documents.

Data Center

WPI seeks to duplicate in the data center our progress toward sustainable computing on the desktop. The university will continue to purchase more energy-efficient servers as they become available and will implement a recycling program similar to our desktop environment. Internally, servers receive a second life in our non-production environments (used for testing new or updated software prior to release into production), and then they go on to a third life in the Worcester-area secondary schools. We also use terminal servers3 to simulate a virtual laboratory environment where we house a number of our most heavily used academic software packages. In turn, this terminal server cluster reduces the total number of individual laboratory desktop machines placed throughout the campus, as students can access the academic software they need from anywhere via the Internet. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 1

Figure 2. A Public Workstation in WPI’s Gordon Library
Photo courtesy of WPI

The Information Technology Division has also embraced virtualization as a method of consolidating the resources in our data center. WPI’s IT infrastructure is mostly centralized, and we began virtualizing single-task and single-application servers in 2006. Much of our core infrastructure (e-mail, enterprise resource planning system, file services, etc.) remains on physical servers due to the performance requirements and mission-critical nature of the applications. However, many of our smaller line-of-business applications can easily be virtualized, providing significant hardware and maintenance cost savings for the university on a yearly basis. Today, 35 percent of our 180 total administrative application servers reside on virtual machines — an estimated savings of over 300,000 kWh per year — and we virtualize new applications whenever possible.

Academic Technology

Electronic classrooms at WPI contain computing, multimedia, and projection equipment used to enhance the learning experience for students at the university. The Academic Technology Center has placed network-control-interface power-management technology in 30 percent of WPI’s 56 electronic classrooms and will continue to install the devices as outdated components are replaced over the next one to two years. The power-management devices are low-cost (slightly less than the price of a projector bulb), so each installation pays for itself quickly (a savings of roughly $5,000 to $6,000 in projector bulb replacement costs per year) by allowing us to power-down equipment, such as projectors and other audio/visual tools, at night and during extended holiday breaks. This simple solution saves the university significant management time and money by extending the usable life of these systems beyond what would be possible while continuously in service. It also shrinks expenses dedicated to replacing costly projector bulbs.


WPI has straightforward advice for other educational institutions struggling with how to implement sustainable technology:

  • It doesn’t cost as much as you think. A few simple decisions (such as manual power-downs and community reminders) can result in immediate cost savings.
  • Investigate recycling options with local schools. The equipment that your college or university provides secondhand will likely be a welcome supplement to their workstation and server inventories.
  • Virtualization within the data center can also make a difference. Seek to virtualize single-task, lightweight applications that don’t generally require a physical system to operate efficiently.
  • Larger sustainable technology programs that require up-front investment are possible with some planning and the right presentation of measurable potential cost savings to your chief financial officer.

Obtaining grassroots support helps, too. Perform some community outreach to get faculty, staff, and students on board. After all, together you can make a big difference.

  1. Building On Consensus: A Progress Report on Sustainable America, 1997,” President’s Council on Sustainable Development.
  2. Find more information on the U.S. Green Building Council website.
  3. Specialized systems built for multi-user log-ins.