Save money this winter: Five tips for low-energy business computing

Energy efficiency isn't just for the data center. Here's how to save some greenbacks by powering down out front.

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If you select a device with a typical usage pattern -- say, a laser printer that gets an average-for-your-office workout each day -- you can multiply the results across the total population of similar equipment to quickly estimate total power consumption. From there, all you need to do is multiply use in kilowatt hours by your local electricity rates and you've got a baseline for savings.

Meters range from the simple to the advanced. P3 International Corp.'s Kill A Watt or Sea Sonic Electronics Co.'s Power Angel are both simple to use and inexpensive.

More advanced units, such as the Watts Up Pro from Electronic Educational Devices Inc., store data and include software for downloading and graphing that data to show watts, volts and kilowatt-hour consumption over time, giving a more accurate picture of power use.

When the facilities staff at Farmer's Almanac publisher Gieger Brothers in Lewiston, Maine, did an initial power audit, it became "a driving force behind initiatives to get power consumption down," says Joe Marshall, business systems analyst and software specialist at the firm. The audit revealed computer equipment was consuming nearly as much power after hours as it was during the day.

After you've audited energy use, the next step is to audit your internal processes to ensure that equipment is being used in the most energy-efficient manner, says Robert Aldrich, a senior manager specializing in energy efficiency at Cisco Systems Inc. And once you have that process audit -- in other words, once you know how well you are doing human-behavior-wise -- the next step is to "kick the tires on technology" by taking a look at utilities such as power management tools, he says.

2. Adopt and enforce power management

"The biggest impact you're going to make in your overall computing environment is to get systems to go to sleep," says Dell's Weisblatt. For example, a laptop that uses 14 to 90 watts in full operation uses less than 1 watt in standby mode. Desktops consume even more, and a single CRT monitor may use upward of 90 watts.

Most companies, however, aren't managing power settings in a coordinated way, and many desktops don't have power management turned on at all.

Enhanced power management tools provided by system vendors aren't even installed in the baseline system image of many corporate PCs. "We do all this work to make [computers] optimized for power management, and we find big corporations go and make changes and deoptimize it," says Howard Locker, director of new technology at Lenovo.

The issue is that it takes IT extra work to integrate and test Lenovo's bundled software with the company's standard image, he says. Often, organizations don't want to take the time to do that.

Some corporations, however, are starting to get the message. Network administrator Keith Brown deployed LANDesk Software's LANDesk to manage -- and lock down -- power settings on all laptops, desktops and attached monitors at Gwinnett Hospital System in Lawrenceville, Ga.

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Power savings at the network level

When it comes to networking, power savings are more difficult to come by. In other words, sleep mode doesn't help much when the network never sleeps.

"If you want [your] YouTube video to come up in three seconds or less," quips Robert Aldrich, a senior manager specializing in energy efficiency at Cisco Systems, "the switches moving those packets have to be in always-on ready mode."

But he sees that changing. "By this time next year, any end devices we sell will have some sort of power-efficiency mode. That's a big initiative for us," he says.

Voice over IP and power over Ethernet (PoE) have also increased upfront office power demands by pushing power consumption from a central PBX out onto the desktop. An IP phone adds about 15 watts of power to each cubicle -- which adds up when you have 1,000 or more users. The PoE-enabled switches in the wiring closet also use more power than non-PoE models do.

Overall, however, a native VoIP system typically consumes less power than the digital PBX system it replaces, Aldrich says.

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