EPA's CIO talks green

CIO explains how she’s outfitting EPA with energy-efficient IT


It’s hard to find an organization that’s greener than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s National Computer Center in North Carolina was one of the first data centers to receive a silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. National Correspondent Carolyn Duffy Marsan interviewed EPA’s CIO Molly O’Neill about virtualization, screen savers, recycling and other tips for creating environmentally friendly IT shops.

It’s hard to find an organization that’s greener than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s National Computer Center in North Carolina was one of the first data centers to receive a silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Network World's National Correspondent Carolyn Duffy Marsan interviewed EPA’s CIO Molly O’Neill about virtualization, screen savers, recycling and other tips for creating environmentally friendly IT shops. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

How are you applying the EPA’s Energy Star guidelines to your IT department?

As we acquire computers or printers or monitors or imaging equipment, one of the things we do is ensure that we are procuring Energy Star products. But being energy efficient isn’t just about Energy Star. When we’re looking at our infrastructure, we’re looking at virtualization and consolidation. Then we’re looking at management support, operational controls and remote assistance [to improve energy efficiency]. And we’re looking at disposal to see if a piece of equipment is recyclable. We are designing our data centers to be energy efficient. It’s a life-cycle process that you need to look at.

Can you describe the life-cycle management process for green IT?

If we’re designing something new like a data center, we think about building design. We also look for opportunities for IT consolidation and virtualization to optimize the existing [data centers] that we have. The second thing we look at is acquisition. We acquire Energy Star products, and we look to see if they are recyclable. Then we look at the management and support aspects of our infrastructure. Can we do printing in a more efficient way? Do we have controls on our systems like screen savers and system standbys that allow systems to hibernate and conserve energy? Do we have remote operations and assistants? The last piece is disposal. If we upgrade, how do we get rid of existing equipment? Can we meet the federal challenge to recycle all of our computer equipment? We ask ourselves: Are we designing our total IT infrastructure and the facilities that hold our IT equipment in a way that is environmentally friendly? Are we putting in appropriate cooling aspects in the floors under these data centers? Do we have system controls on our lights? Green IT is all of these things.



Molly O'Neil

Title:Assistant Administrator for Environmental Information and CIO
Tenure:1 year
Previous jobs:State Director for the National Environmental Information Exchange at the Environmental Council of the States. Prior to her work on the Exchange Network, she spent 14 years working as a management and IT consultant. She is a graduate of Virginia Tech.
Annual IT budget:$461 million in FY07* (Source: Fed Sources)
Number of users:24,000 across 191 federal facilities
IT systems and network:One primary data center and 45 computer rooms linked together by an MPLS network.
Key applications:Regulatory program management systems, environmental modeling and visualization, and Web-based public access to environmental information.

How far along are you at adopting this approach?

We are very far along. Our National Computer Center at Research Triangle Park, N.C., is a certified green building. We have designed the facility to be energy efficient. As we upgrade our servers, we are trying to be more energy efficient. We’re taking advantage of consolidation and virtualization of our servers and data storage. We’re putting in the management support and controls. All of our computers have screen savers. They go into hibernation. We recycle all of our computers. But even though we’re far ahead, we know there’s more we can be doing.

How do you track energy usage?

We track from an energy perspective every major EPA facility, and Research Triangle Park is one of them. It’s tracked through our facilities group, and [the data] is communicated out to every assistant administrator on a quarterly basis. We talk about where there have been increases and where there have been decreases. There is a discussion at the very highest levels of this organization about energy use. Sometimes the people responsible for purchasing and buildings and the CIO are at different levels of an organization. They need to come together to track energy usage. When you’re making these improvements, you want to track if they are actually working and if they translate into saving money. [Management] needs to know that if they are investing in green IT infrastructure that they are seeing results.

Do you know how much energy the EPA’s IT department and data center operations consume?

Currently, EPA does not measure the power consumption of the IT department separately from the total energy consumption at each facility. However, the agency has funded a project that will install additional meters in the NCC to enable us to distinguish between the IT and the total building energy use. This capability should come on line in 2008. Once EPA begins measuring and can assess the data gathered, EPA will set targets and identify mechanisms for reducing power consumption.

When did EPA start measuring and tracking its energy consumption, particularly for its main data center?

Metering began in the NCC in January 2006. EPA now has over a year’s worth of solid numbers.

Is 5% reduction a reasonable goal for an IT department’s energy usage?

It’s hard to generalize what those goals should be for other organizations. You have to understand what your own energy footprint is first. Sometimes you can make radical changes in energy usage. Maybe you don’t have computer centers, you just have severs everywhere. If your current infrastructure is not green at all, you could make huge strides quickly. We are looking at our entire energy footprint in terms of our facilities and IT operations. We’re looking to optimize our infrastructure became it makes a lot of sense.

What specific steps have you taken to reduce energy usage in your data center?

From an IT server perspective, we had an aging Unix environment, and what we needed to do was to migrate to a more modern system that allows us to have virtualization technologies. We also eliminated our direct-attached storage and replaced it with a storage-area network. As we’re upgrading our infrastructure, we’re doing it in a way to have more storage and to reduce our energy footprint. At our Research Triangle Park facility, we installed solar lights in the parking lots. It’s one of the largest stretches of solar-illuminated lights in the U.S. We put a solar panel on the rooftop of our National Computer Center. Between the solar rooftop and other steps, we are reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 100 tons annually. Our National Computer Center has a silver certification for [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] from the U.S. Green Building Council. Even though we got it certified in 2005, we continue to make improvements.

What advice do you have for other CIOs trying to cut their IT department’s energy usage?

Planning and design [of facilities] is important. Other things they can be doing include embracing virtualization technology. They need to make energy conservation an objective as they look at how they manage and monitor IT. They need to dispose of their IT infrastructure in an environmentally friendly manner. And they need to utilize technology that allows employees to reduce their transportation needs. To totally maximize energy efficiency, you need to look at facilities, purchasing, management, operations and disposal.

Is telecommuting key to your energy efficiency strategy?

That’s something that we, here at the EPA, do as well. We’re big users of video teleconferencing. We have 10 major regions and over 100 facilities in the U.S. We try to avoid flying everyone around on planes so we can avoid spending the money to do that and expending all of that energy.

Does the EPA have a plan to make its data centers carbon neutral?

Our focus has been on reducing energy usage in our data centers as much as we can. I think we’re real leaders in that. We’re looking at other things like carbon neutrality. In 2004, EPA entered into a three-year agreement with an energy company to purchase 100 million kilowatt hours of green power in the form of renewable energy certificates. This helps us support the generation of biomass power from a facility in Georgia. This purchase offsets 100% of the electricity consumption of all of our Research Triangle Park facilities, including the National Computer Center. EPA’s current contract for green power runs through March 2008. The agency is putting together a multi-year, agencywide green power strategy to be implemented in FY08 that will ensure green power is available to each facility.

Why should a CIO adopt green IT practices?

The why is simple to us: it’s socially responsible, it’s environmentally friendly, and it’s fiscally sound. For CIOs, it provides a real opportunity to optimize your infrastructure, which allows you to do a lot more with your IT dollars. And it’s not just about improving your IT performance. You can really tag it to the performance of the entire organization.

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