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Green ICT for the future

There are two challenges for today'€™s switched on university: winning hearts and minds over to energy reduction, and keeping equipment cool

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | June 30, 2014 | Higher education

The drivers for green

“Universities’ desire to go green is very significant,” says Andy Bennett, group sales and commercial director for the Stone Group, with whom universities currently spend around £80m a year on ICT. “Green is attractive to students and it is part of their corporate social responsibility. Universities are
behaving more and more like the big corporations we work with across the rest of the public sector.”

Not only do students expect their institution to have a level of commitment to green agenda, they also want to learn about it. The National Union of Students have published research showing that over 80% of undergraduates believe that skills for sustainability should be covered by their university experience. 

The cost factor

But while ethics and students come high on the list, the real motivation for universities’ carbon reduction may well be financial. As Andy Bennett explains: “It’s a constant balance between green sustainable IT, ethical sourcing and cost. There are few procurement bodies that can justify paying significant premiums to support green IT.” Universities save money on printing by going digital or by mandating duplex or reduced printing. They reduce travel costs when they support video conferencing. They bring down energy bills through intelligent building design – for example using smart LED lights, automated power systems and computers that go to sleep automatically. 

Winning hearts and minds

“There’s only so much that preaching can do,” says Rob Bristow, green expert at Jisc, the UK’s technology charity for universities and colleges. “It’s much better to set systems up so people are incentivised to do the right thing.” Indeed, more and more UK universities are taking a holistic approach to greening their organisation – not just thinking of it as a problem for the Estates or IT department. In the last year, a number of universities including Leeds, Southampton and Edinburgh have created a sustainability team to raise the profile of their commitment to not just environmental but also social and ethical concerns.

Hot stuff

Aside from the challenge of changing peoples’ attitudes towards energy use, the other great issue facing universities is the cooling of their ICT equipment. It is estimated that the HE sector spends £147 million a year on energy to support its ICT alone – including the costs of providing and operating the associated cooling and power supply infrastructure. There are individual bits of tech that are helping. Low-power replacements for desktop PCs are highly efficient, such as Intel’s ‘next unit of computing’ (NUC) and the so-called thin-client technology that’s used by many universities including Queen Margaret University in Scotland. These are smaller, more discreet and efficient devices that work like PCs but on 72% less power.

But when it comes to major savings from a carbon and cost reduction viewpoint, most are now looking to the next generation of data centres. Cooling IT servers is a major headache for those who manage them. As universities seek to move servers out of their offices and into specially designed data centres, the challenge emerges of how to efficiently cool them as well as how to finance this major cost. Unless you can afford your own small nuclear plant attached to a university, you’ll have to buy power in.

Rob Bristow says, “If you’ve got the opportunity to build a new data centre, you can do really amazing things. But it’s more challenging where you’re refurbishing or reengineering existing space in areas which were never designed for the job –you need a good engineering partner.”

The future?

Now that green technology has stopped competing with cost, and has started to support it, the technology itself needs to catch up to ensure that high performance computing can continue to support the UK’s research long into the future.

Cooling using air or liquid are options for data centres that aren’t situated in chilly climates. At the University of Leeds, researchers are working with commercial firm Iceotope on data servers cooled by liquid. This liquid totally replaces the air conditioning that cools most computers. It’s an almost silent process that could go on in the corner of your office and because it works by heat exchange, it can save up to 98% on overheads compared with air-cooled systems. At the University of Bath’s data centre the liquid cooling solution provided by Future-Tech is making use of ‘free’ cooling for more than three quarters of the year. This works as long as the temperature outside is lower than 22 degrees Celsius.  

These universities have invested in bespoke solutions. But we are also likely to see more universities outsourcing their data centres to the cloud as capacity grows and the need for flexibility increases. What’s clear is that the need for green and the need for digital are no longer pulling in different directions. By winning hearts and minds over to the green agenda, and finding new ways to keep their equipment cool, universities are creating healthier bank balances and carbon footprints.

By Nicola Yeeles

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