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Power down

IS&T recommends ways to save electricity
Image courtesy / Department of Facilities/MITEI

GreeningMIT is an occasional series focusing on the broad efforts to improve energy efficiency on campus.

With more than 20,000 personal computers and thousands of servers on campus, saving even a small amount of energy on each could make a significant impact. Toward that end, Information Services and Technology (IS&T) has made recommendations about buying energy-efficient computers, enabling energy-saving settings and consolidating underused servers by using virtualization.

With community adoption of these guidelines, MIT would save about 8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually -- enough to power 1,000 Cambridge homes -- says Laxmi Rao, IS&T's energy coordinator.

For example, IS&T recommends powering down most computers when they're not being used and buying energy-efficient models when replacing computers and monitors. IS&T provides detailed information on its web site about the energy management features that are built into Windows and Macintosh operating systems. One action everyone can take now is to disable screen savers; they don't save screens, but they do waste power.

But there's a catch: IS&T is aware that its recommendation to power down computers when idle is not feasible for everyone at this time. Turning off your computer when you head home at night sounds like a no-brainer -- but it is not a viable option for about one-quarter of all MIT's personal computers because they are set up for automatic nightly backups or remote access.

IS&T and members of the community are pursuing solutions. One possible approach would allow a computer that is powered down to wake up, complete a scheduled backup and then return to a low power mode.

"We know this has to be done," says Jonathan Hunt, IS&T senior manager for software services. "The necessary solution is being tested and enhanced to ensure it will work reliably across different types of computers."

IS&T has also asked its computer vendors to improve the efficiency of computer power supplies. A few years ago a typical computer power supply was around 60 percent efficient, with the remainder being dissipated as waste heat. IS&T Departmental IT Resource Manager Chris Lavallee worked with MIT Procurement to set a standard for at least 80 percent efficient power supplies on all new computers bought on campus or recommended to students. Major vendors took notice. Dell, for example, became the first vendor to meet the 80-plus requirement for personal computers in 2007. They are continuing to make improvements and hope to meet 90-plus certification for their server line in the near future.

IS&T's energy-saving efforts go beyond recommendations for personal computers. It is implementing virtualization software for servers in MIT's data centers. Virtualization enables one server to consolidate the functions of several separate servers, and thus reduce the total number of servers and the energy required to run them. Savings achieved in the data centers will supplement savings from the recommended measures for personal computers.

IS&T is also looking at the environmental impacts of printing. A student-led effort supported by IS&T has resulted in the promotion of double-sided printing. Since spring of last year, it has been the default setting for all new Athena accounts -- thus reducing the use of paper and the energy required to manufacture it.

The list of energy-saving guidelines from IS&T can be found at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 18, 2009 (download PDF).

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