Leveraging Software to Reduce Energy Consumption
Published: October 2009
Faced with data center capacity limitations, soaring server use, and increased energy consumption, Microsoft IT (MSIT) organized for and developed an Environmental Sustainability (ES) plan. Aimed at reducing the environmental impact of Microsoft, the ES plan includes the strategy of using software to reduce the energy consumption of software-driven devices.
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Environmentally responsible IT business strategies, or "green" initiatives, continue to gain momentum at Microsoft. MSIT has been addressing environmental sustainability (ES) issues for some time, but recently recognized the need for a single point of collaboration. This article focuses on the ES plan created by MSIT and discusses, in particular, the power PC management issues that Microsoft is addressing.
Environmental Sustainability Goals
To change the way that Microsoft is using power and to reduce the impact on the environment, MSIT developed an ES plan. The ES plan has two broad goals:
- Apply Microsoft's technology and engineering expertise to help solve the environmental challenges that everyone is facing
- Reduce Microsoft's carbon footprint
To achieve these broad goals, MSIT identified four action areas:
- Reduce Microsoft's electricity consumption
- Improve the utilization of the IT equipment in the data centers and labs
- Build more efficient applications
- Reduce Microsoft's carbon emissions by designing better data centers and by reducing overall travel, making use of Unified Communications (UC) technology for online meetings and telecommuting
MSIT also made organizational changes to help achieve the goals of the ES plan. MSIT:
- Identified an executive sponsor. The executive sponsor is responsible for the overall strategic plan, which will be carried out over a three-to-five-year period. Having an executive sponsor is key for initiatives at Microsoft. The executive sponsor reports to the CIO.
- Appointed a Program Manager dedicated to the ES effort. The Program Manager coordinates the entire program and makes sure that the responsible members carry out the changes and report on the status.
- Assembled a virtual team of departmental leads who report on activities and roadblocks. This virtual team works to attain commitments by communicating the issues.
- Created an advisory board made up of senior-level IT executives as well as senior members from non-IT groups such as Procurement, Real Estate Facilities, and Global Foundation Services.
Power PC Management—Challenges and Opportunities
MSIT ran a few pilots to determine potential savings in the area of power PC management. The initial studies indicated a potential 30 percent savings, roughly equal to about 22 million kWhs, which is enough to operate about 2200 homes.
Power Option Settings
Although MSIT buys and delivers each PC at Microsoft with the power option set to Balanced, over 80 percent of MSIT's clients reset the power option to High Performance. It's a natural human response to want to run a machine at its highest performance level, but the typical knowledge worker at Microsoft doesn't need that much power. In fact, only 10 percent of the tasks at Microsoft require the full CPU performance capacity.
Leaving Systems On Overnight
MSIT also determined that 70 percent of PCs at Microsoft are left on overnight. About 50 percent of the systems never go to sleep at all. There are often legitimate reasons for leaving PCs on. For example, many tests are run overnight. Running an SQL query for hours at a time is another example of a legitimate reason to leave a PC on at night. But machines are very often left on unnecessarily either for technical reasons or simply because users haven't been made aware of the environmental issues and potential savings.
"It's a natural human response to want to run a machine at its highest performance level, but the typical knowledge worker at Microsoft doesn't need that much power. In fact, only 10 percent of the tasks at Microsoft require the full CPU performance capacity."
Even if a user sets a PC to fall asleep, the PC may ignore those settings if an application is running in the background or if an application signals the operating system that it shouldn't be shut down. Applications often do this for invalid reasons, however, so Microsoft is working with the application providers and also is working on changes to the operating system to remedy this problem. An application has to be able to signal the operating system. Does the application really need to have the system stay awake or can the application be shut down?
There are also productivity issues related to turning a
machine off. Microsoft is working on improving the boot time. For machines that
are put to sleep rather than turned off, wake
time is pretty simple and instantaneous, so that shouldn't be a valid excuse for leaving a machine on.
Client Behavior and Awareness
MSIT believes that significant savings can be achieved by making Microsoft employees aware of the opportunity for energy savings. Microsoft employees are generally very environmentally conscious and the Seattle area is known as a green community. MSIT plans to use this consciousness and also the competitive nature of Microsoft employees to achieve ES goals.
MSIT is also piloting some third-party software solutions that offer reporting enhancements. MSIT is currently able to collect statistics at the aggregate IT level, but not at the departmental or client level. Third-party software offers solutions in this area.
Group Policy Management
"MSIT is currently in the pilot stage of the ES plan and is moving forward cautiously. Although the potential cost savings are significant, it's really more about doing the right thing—reducing Microsoft's carbon footprint. In order to gain buy-in and create momentum, it's very important to provide the right solutions and not needlessly interrupt employees."
MSIT uses preferences within the Group Policy object (GPO) to reset power options to the Balanced setting on a company-wide basis. If a particular user really needs the High Performance power option, the user has permissions to change the setting; the Group Policy settings won't just rotate that user back to the Balanced setting. MSIT runs the preference periodically to push everyone back to the Balanced setting. For example, MSIT can run the preference monthly, quarterly, or yearly. Users that need higher performance can trickle back in and change their settings. Group policy can support a PC when it times out, when it goes to standby, or when it goes off. It can't necessarily look at different levels of CPU usage, so MSIT is evaluating third-party software for that functionality. MSIT is also looking at opt in/opt out tools. It's very important to acknowledge users who really need the higher power settings or who really need to keep their machines on all of the time.
Other Challenges and Opportunities
Microsoft has a vast mix of computer makes and models. MSIT doesn't aggressively recycle or remove PCs from campus. Because there are so many makes and models, there isn't a single solution to wake up those computers. Microsoft currently has about 2.6 machines per person. Historically, this may have made sense, but MSIT sees a large opportunity for savings by reducing the number of machines and reducing the number of makes and models. The vast majority of developers at Microsoft today typically need just one machine, plus one to three test machines (not including labs).
Clients also want to be able to access their work PCs remotely, but it's much easier to access a PC remotely if the PC is awake. That's another reason why people leave them on or change their power settings so that they never go to sleep. MSIT is looking for a reliable, simple, consistent solution to be able to easily wake up a PC through the Internet.
MSIT has also looked at putting users machines to sleep for regular periods of time during the night. Microsoft employees work very irregular hours, however. The core groups of employees at Microsoft work anywhere from 6 am to 11 pm and their habits aren't necessarily consistent. For this reason and because Microsoft has too many users who remotely connect into their PCs, Microsoft doesn't currently have a sleep policy that they enforce. This may change as they improve their management technology.
MSIT is currently in the pilot stage of the ES plan and
is moving forward cautiously.
Although the potential cost savings are significant, it's really more about doing the right thing—reducing Microsoft's carbon footprint. In order to gain buy-in and create momentum, it's very important to provide the right solutions and not needlessly interrupt employees. If MSIT shuts down PCs when applications should actually be running, they'll lose that momentum. By creating more awareness of the opportunities and by making improvements to the applications and operating system, MSIT believes that it can achieve a 30% savings in the near future. By fine-tuning the strategy over time, MSIT hopes to expand those savings to the 50% range.
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