Managing Your PC Environment: Why keeping a tab on electricity usage is so important

Energy consumption in the UK and Europe is on the rise, as are energy costs. A March 2013 report by the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change suggested that whilst bills were coming down for home owners, businesses that are medium-sized users of energy currently face costs that are on average 21 per cent higher as a result of UK Government energy and climate change policies. Costs for businesses are also expected to rise further by 2020. Some ICT products and services are actually responsible for anything between 8 to 10 per cent of the EU's electricity consumption. Furthermore, according to the Vice President of the European Commission, ICT's contribution to the European Union's electricity consumption could double by 2020.

However, with simple changes, and with external support to manage their environment, firms can reduce the energy they consume and save costs. Typically scalable to 100,000 seats and suitable for notebook, desktop, Windows and Mac PCs, PC power management technology can provide a demonstrable cost reduction at every level – IT, staff and the overall business – through reduced energy consumption. Depending on the environment, this saving is around £60 per PC per year or £60,000 per year for a 1000 computer organisation.

IT managers are interested too; a May 2013 survey of 127 UK IT managers showed the most popular cost saving measures, technologies and activities for IT managers were 'reducing IT power and cooling costs' (20 per cent) and the 'introduction of PC management software' (17 per cent).

Along with saving money, better management of energy consumption will also help larger organisations – those with energy bills greater than £500,000 - fall into line with the UK Government's CRC Scheme. Often referred to as simply 'the CRC', the mandatory scheme aims to improve energy efficiency and cut emissions in large public and private sector organisations. These organisations are responsible for around 10 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions. The scheme itself has undergone a number of changes since it was first introduced in response to criticism of complexity and administrative burden.

In practice

Global oil and exploration company, Tullow Oil, recently implemented PC power management software across all of its 2,800 PCs in use at multiple sites across 15 countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. It can now create a baseline of energy consumption and then implement power policies to reduce its IT energy usage. The IT team can generate reports, detailing power usage of individual workstations worldwide, and enforce optimum energy efficiency across the organisation.

In practice, an IT department like Tullow Oil's might use PC power management systems during "working" hours of 8am to 6pm - PCs and monitors remain always-on, but monitors turnoff after 20 minutes of inactivity and PCs go into standby mode after 30 minutes of inactivity. At 6pm every night, if there is no activity, PCs go into standby and the monitors turn off. Employees working after hours can delay the software from powering down. IT typically performs software updates at 11pm so a maintenance window can be created to power on all assets for 30 minutes at that time. The savings data is then recorded and is accessible via a management console where organisations can report on financial savings and environmental benefits.

More advanced PC power management systems can also personalise 'the energy saving experience' to individual users. The system can learn user behaviour – start time, coffee time, lunch break, finish time, etc. – fine-tuning the powering down of energy consumption and 'throttling back' of energy at specific times of day.

It is also possible for PC power management systems to be connected with building control systems, enabling the powering-on of specific PCs as individuals pass through security control. By the time a user arrives at their workstation, their PC is ready for use. This takes PC power management systems into a new realm – improving employee productivity.

Speaking about his use of PC power management software Andy Harper, Device Management Analyst, Tullow Oil, explains: "PC power management software gives us a unique insight into power usage behaviour of our devices whether located at our head office in the UK, on a remote oil rig in sub-Saharan Africa or a vessel in the Atlantic Ocean."

He adds: "It is set to give us significant cost savings with a reduction in energy usage and its advanced functionality can detect if an employee is interacting with a PC or out at a meeting; whilst at the same time avoiding any shut down on workstations that are running modelling or monitoring software. We can manage our environment, whilst also supporting our Environmental Health and Safety [EHS] policy."

The IT team at Loughborough University has a similar positive experience. Loughborough University is using power management technology to manage its PC environment, reduce energy consumption costs and carbon emissions. In use since 2011, the software has saved the University up to £30k each year by 'throttling back' the energy consumption of 1400 HP desktop PCs, 50 notebook PCs and 250 dual-boot iMacs overnight and during weekends. The University also achieved Return on Investment (ROI) within three months.

The machines are used by up to 14,000 undergraduates, post-grads', research assistants and external seminar visitors. The software was also deployed on three kiosk machines, in use by Team GB whilst training prior to the London Olympics.

Loughborough has also reduced annual carbon emissions by 75,000lbs and saved 45,000kWh per year making a significant contribution to the University's aim to cut its carbon footprint by 40 per cent by 2020 compared to its 2005/06 baseline. This is equivalent to reducing CO2 emissions to 16,818 tonnes by 2020 (saving 12,685 tonnes).

Achieving a 43 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions is a significant challenge for the University, but offers the opportunity to develop a truly sustainable campus and be a leader on environmental sustainability within the Higher Education sector. Looking further ahead the University will aim to reduce CO2 by 83 per cent by 2050.

Deployment

The process of putting a PC power management programme into action has never been easier. With simple onsite evaluation software that is easily installed, and agents that deploy the same day, companies can collect metrics and position policies just hours after PC power management software has been installed.

Some PC power management solutions even offer cloud capabilities so that smaller businesses do not have to worry about running and maintaining the software on their own server infrastructure – it can be hosted and maintained for them. Small businesses see efficiencies almost immediately, deployment is instant, and the day they begin using the cloud based solution they can begin powering down unused systems, setting automatic shut downs, still running software upgrades and patches by waking whenever required, and reducing power levels on server systems.

Whatever the size of organization, customers should test the technology on a limited number of machines as a proof of concept. Ask: "Can I really save this kind of money?" It is music to a management team's ears to see if technology, tested in your environment, can provide a payback period of less than a year and ROI of better than 50 per cent. Again, results will vary but that's what tests and proof of concept are for. For many companies slugging it out for single digit operating returns, a cost savings opportunity such as this is not to be taken lightly. Schools and the Government can benefit greatly in this age of austerity.

Second, it is important to note that an organisation's first move towards power management should be phased. Most users would have not yet encountered their machines automatically going to sleep during the day, or turning completely off at night, it might take a little time for them to adjust to the new policies. That is why it is better to start with less strict power management policies initially and then fine-tune policies over time. Users notice everything about their computers, especially if it has been altered in some way. This is why it becomes so important for the management team to help the IT department enforce these new changes.

In general Loughborough University faced the same challenges that all enterprise organisations have when designing a power policy strategy, which is to take into account the variety of systems and user behaviour experienced in different user groups within the estate. Our own power management software, Verismic Power Manager, gave the Loughborough team the information they needed, via the Verismic Power Manager dashboard and reports, to understand different user and system behaviour, to either justify the application of policies or to exclude systems from policy enforcement.

Reporting

In the same survey referenced above, 28 per cent of 127 IT managers suggested that they did not regard energy-based cost savings as a priority because [despite high interest] cost-savings cannot be clearly identified. This is actually a mis-perception. PC power management software offers metrics to help IT determine just how effective their energy policy is by tracking the savings that are being made – even with a 100,000 seat deployment reporting is near real-time.

Measurements are dynamic and ongoing - total data costs per machine compared to a year ago, year over year, and month to date kilowatt consumption, dashboards that monitor average PC power consumption, year over year cost savings, monthly costs, and month to date costs and carbon emissions.

PC users are also provided with feedback and stats promoting the benefits of the policies and its solutions – costs savings and environmental benefits by way of example.

It might be hard to believe, but PC power management comes at little cost. Full ROI is achievable in just six to twelve months for on-premise software installations. Loughborough University achieved ROI in just three months. PC energy management benefits the overall organisation – by implementing such systems, the IT team can take a lead on helping organisations reduce costs.

PC power management can be placed in a rare category of IT projects that not only save money, but help the environment, providing a positive public image for the company. Some of the most successful business projects are those that focus on a company's environmental endeavors, or willingness to make eco-friendly changes. There are so many ways a company can win by saving money and helping the environment, and it all starts with taking necessary, but small steps toward energy efficiency and green IT energy management.

Alternatives

Some form of power management settings already come standard on most computers, but they do not provide central management and tracking, which means the configuration is very limited. Our findings in head-to-head customer site comparisons mirror those of the PC power management (PCPM) market conducted by Ovum Research, i.e. "Many IT administrators have inflated expectations about the effectiveness of desktops' built-in power-saving technologies...The typical savings of 40 per cent or more that can be achieved with PCPM versus built-in power-saving features also applies to PCs managed by Microsoft's latest System Center Configuration Manager (ConfigMgr). While Microsoft's ConfigMgr R3 includes improved power management, it falls short of leading PC power management solutions on the market." - Ovum Research, December 2011

Some users may think it would be more efficient to just switch their machines to 'off' in the evening than to use power management software. The reality is that PC power management is just an afterthought for most users as they do not personally benefit from reducing their workplace energy usage. As with many things that require repeated human interaction, continual reinforcement to maintain the effectiveness of this manual process becomes imperative. This is one example of why businesses invest in automated systems.

Although many organisations have tried in the past, creating home grown solutions to remedy the need for an energy management solution may be more trouble than it is worth. Writing computer scripts that list commands to turn off a computer without user interaction, or using a group policy object (GPO) to control what users can and cannot do on a computer system will only get you so far. Production environments have many complexities that self-scripting will need to overcome, making the above methods less effective. Without flexibility and granularity, homegrown solutions soon wither and die due to lack of available resources or human skills. PC power management is a discipline of systems management and there are very few companies that do not have some kind of investment in these tools. To patch and deliver software these tools go above and beyond what the plain OS and GPO/login scripts provide, and PC power management is no different.

There is a common misconception with regards to screen savers and energy conservation because screen savers actually consume more energy than if they were not enabled at all. Once used for screen burning, where static images burnt themselves into the screen, today they are purely used for entertainment purposes, and should not be confused with power management.

The future

Sadly, energy costs will continue to rise. The requirement for reducing PC energy consumption will not go away. The 'cloud' might reduce power consumption in the datacentre as IT services are moved off-site, but endpoints will remain onsite and within the control and responsibility of the IT team. Even factoring in the rise of tablet PCs, the requirement for PC power management will not abate. For most professional IT users, the tablet has become a second screen not a primary screen - the laptop is not being replaced, but is being augmented by a tablet. This means that businesses are consuming even more energy. However, the time is right for IT teams and leaders to begin more effective management of their environment.

Ashley Leonard, CEO of Verismic, a company that produces a number of software solution that aim to decrease the TCO associated with running computers.