No good excuses not to power down PCs

IT admins cite plenty of obstacles to embracing PC power management, but all of them can be overcome

I can appreciate why companies don't pursue certain green-tech initiatives. A massive server virtualization and consolidation effort can be costly, complex, and time-consuming. Overhauling the datacenter to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold standards and filling it with the newest, most energy-efficient IT and CRAC equipment isn't particularly practical. Similarly, replacing all your PCs and monitors with machines that meet EPEAT Gold standards -- meaning they're both energy efficient and built in an environmentally friendly manner -- might represent too costly and complicated an endeavor.

But there's one green tech initiative that I firmly believe every organization out there should embrace now: PC power management. Computers and monitors all over the world are left powered during non-working hours, wasting electricity. That directly affects the bottom line, as it means higher energy bills; it also means your organization has a larger carbon footprint. By loading machines with software and adjusting policies, organizations can curb that waste, thus saving money. It seems pretty straightforward. Why, then, don't more organizations do it?

[ Learn more about the basics of PC power management. ]

Recent survey results from Forrester provide some answers. The research company asked 83 IT professionals what the top barriers were to implementing PC power management.

The ROI question

Among the barriers, not surprisingly, was the question of cost and ROI. Some IT admins weren't convinced that the energy saved from putting PCs and monitors to sleep during off-hours would make up for the cost of PC power management software. In reality, though, the savings can, indeed, be quite compelling. All you need to do is crunch a few numbers.

Consider that keeping a computer on when it's not in use can cost between $25 and $75 per year in wasted electricity. (I've actually seen numbers higher than $75; it depends on numerous factors, including model of machine and monitor, energy costs, and hours left on.) We can average that out to $50. Now let's say PC power management software costs $33 per license for the first year and $10 per year afterward. (Those are the figures I've seen for a package from Autonomic Software.) In this scenario, if you have 1,000 PCs, you could save $17,000 the first year and $40,000 each year thereafter. The savings for the first year could be higher if your local utility offers incentives for employing PC power management.

[ Learn more about the ROI of PC power management. | Find out how to measure how much power your machines use. ]

Conceivably, a company might not find a financial incentive for PC power management. "The only examples I could conceive that there would be little or no financial ROI is if the price per kilowatt hour is very low and the organization is already using a more energy-efficient form of computing, such as thin clients or laptops versus desktops or workstations," says Doug Washburn, analyst, Infrastructure and Operations, at Forrester.

However, you won't know until you measure it.

No ownership

The question of ROI doesn't top the list of barriers to adopting PC power management, however. Rather, the No. 1 obstacle cited by 42 percent of the respondents was the lack of ownership. That is, no one in the organization is actually responsible for managing energy consumption of PCs, so no one is taking the initiative to rein it in. "This isn't surprising, since very few IT organizations actually pay the energy-related [operating expenses], and projects like PC power management become subordinate to other initiatives," says Forrester's Washburn.

The question of ownership can be quite complex, Washburn notes. "A number of roles need to be involved to successfully pull off PC power management," he says. "Those surveyed told us the CIO and even CEO need to grant approval, the CIO and/or VP of IT operations needs to provide funding, the enterprise architects and VP of IT operations should develop the specific policies, desktop managers and network managers are responsible for actual technical implementation, and the sustainability leader and CIO should be responsible for communicating results."

In a related vein, 22 percent of the IT admins surveyed said that "the financial savings [from PC power management] flow to another department's budget." In other words, "Why should I waste my department's resources when I don't get the payback?" As with the previous barrier, this reflects a cultural problem, one no doubt seen at many organizations.

Thus, buy-in from a senior executive, perhaps even the CEO, is essential, Washburn says. One compelling way to get that buy-in is to map out the potential savings and show them to someone influential. Pointing out that powering down PCs can spare the air 1.6 tons of CO2 per desktop per year might also help strengthen your case.

User space

The second and third top barriers to PC power management seem to be connected: "Users will not tolerate any loss of productivity from PC power management" (39 percent) and IT is "not sure what approach to take or policies to put in place" (31 percent). These concerns aren't surprising, says Washburn: "IT pros are risk averse … and many are afraid of reducing user productivity."

First, it's important to understand that with PC power management software, IT has the ability to set computers to power on and off at pre-determined hours. If the workday at your office is 9 to 5, you could set machines to wake up at 8:50 a.m. and power down at 5:15 p.m., aside from weekends.

Better yet, you can invest some time "to understand users' work habits and tailor your PC power management policies to accommodate them versus a one-size-fits-all approach," says Washburn, both to get the most bang for your buck as well as to ensure you don't hinder employee productivity. For example, workers in customer-facing roles, such as call center operators or bank tellers, or those in jobs where every second counts, such as traders, would benefit from less aggressive PC power management policies, such as powering down only after the business day is done and on weekends.

Yet another barrier to PC power management cited by the surveyed IT admins: "Unable to perform PC management tasks (e.g. updates, patches, back ups) for PCs in lower power states." Fortunately, that obstacle is easy to scale. Thanks to Wake on LAN technology, there are PC power management and patch-management products capable of rousing powered-down machines for routine maintenance, then putting them back to sleep. Vendors include 1E, Verdiem, KACE, and BigFix.

I want to point out one final barrier to PC power management cited in the survey: Around 8 percent said, "Turning PCs on and off will reduce their performance and useful life." Fortunately, that's nothing more than a myth. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute: "Modern computers are designed to handle 40,000 on/off cycles before failure, and you're not likely to approach that number during the average computer's five to seven year life span. In fact, IBM and Hewlett Packard encourage their own employees to turn off idle computers, and some studies indicate it would require on/off cycling every five minutes to harm the hard drive."

The report goes on to say that "powering down your computer may actually extend its life cycle by reducing the intake of dust, which can cause fans to seize up or parts of circuit boards to overheat."

So there you have it: Perceived obstacles to PC power management and methods to overcome them. So now what's your excuse for not shutting down your company's PCs?

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