The Lean, Green, Virtualized Machine

I normally try to avoid being preachy, but this is too good a bandwagon to stay off of.  If you make decisions about technology, at your organization, as a board member, or in your home, then you should decide to green your IT.  This is socially beneficial action that you can take with all sorts of side benefits, such as cost savings and further efficiencies.  And it's not so much of a new project to take on as it is a set of guidelines and practices to apply to your current plan.  Even if my day job wasn't at an organization dedicated to defending our planet, I'd still be writing this post, I'm certain.

I've heard a few reports that server rooms can output 50% or more of a company's entire energy; PC Magazine puts them at 30-40% on average.  If you work for an organization of 50 people or more, then you should look at this metric: how many servers did you have in 2000; how many do you have now?  If the volume hasn't doubled, at least, then you're the exception to a very bloated rule.  We used to pile multiple applications and services onto each server, but the model for the last decade or so has been one server per database, application, or function.  This has resulted in a boom of power usage and inefficiency. Another metric that's been quoted to me by IDC, the IT research group, is that, on average, we use 10% of any given server's processing power.  So the server sits there humming 24/7, outputting carbons and ticking up our power bills.

So what is Green IT?  A bunch of things, some very geeky, some common sense.  As you plan for your technology upgrades, here are some things that you can consider:

1. Energy-Saving SystemsDell, HP and the major vendors all sell systems with energy-saving architecture.  Sometimes they cost a little more, but that cost should be offset by savings on the power bills.  Look for free software and other programs that will help users manage and automate the power output of their stations. 

2. Hosted Applications. When it makes sense, let someone else host your software.  The scale of their operation will insure that the resources supporting your application are far more refined than a dedicated server in your building.

3. Green Hosting.  Don't settle for any host - if you have a hosting service for your web site, ask them if they employ solar power or other alternative technologies to keep their servers powered.  Check out some of the green hosting services referenced here at Idealware.

4. Server Virtualization.  And if, like me, you have a room packed with servers, virtualize.  Virtualization is a geeky concept, but it's one that you should understand.  Computer operating system software, such as Windows and Linux, is designed to speak to a computer's hardware and translate the high-level activities we perform to machine code that the computer's processor can understand.  When you install Windows or Linux, the installation process identifies the particular hardware on your system--the type of processor, brand of graphics card, number of USB ports--and configures the operating system to work with your particular devices. 

Virtualization is technology that sits in the middle, providing a generic hardware interface for the operating system to speak with.  Why?  Because, once the operating system is speaking to something generic, it no longer cares what hardware it's actually installed on.  So you can install your Windows 2003 server on one system.  Then, if a component fails, you can copy that server to another system, even if it's radically different - say, a Mac - and it will still boot up and run.  More to the point, you can boot up multiple virtual servers on one actual computer (assuming it has sufficient RAM and processing power).

A virtual server is, basically, a file.  Pure and simple: one large file that the computer opens up and runs.  While running, you can install programs, create documents, change your wallpaper and tweak your settings.  When you shut down the server, it will retain all of your changes in the file.  You can back that file up.  You can copy it to another server and run it while you upgrade components on it's home server, so that your users don't lose access during the upgrade. And you can perform the upgrade at 1:00 in the afternoon, instead of 1:00 in the morning.

So, this isn't just cool.  This is revolutionary.  Need a new server to test an application?  Well, don't buy a new machine.  Throw a virtualized server on an existing machine.

Don't want to mess with installing Windows server again?  Keep a virtualized, bare bones server file (VM) around and use it as a template.

Don't want to install it in the first place?  Google "Windows Server VM".  There are pre-configured virtual machines for every operating system made available for download.

Want to dramatically reduce the number of computers in your server room, thereby maximizing the power usage of the remaining systems?  Develop a virtualization strategy as part of our technology plan.

This is just the surface of the benefits of virtualization.  There are some concerns and gotchas, too, that need to be considered, and I'll be blogging more about it.

But the short story is that we have great tools and opportunities to make our systems more supportive of our environment, curbing the global warming crisis one server room at a time.  Unlike a lot of these propositions, this one comes with cost reductions and efficiencies built-in.  It's an opportunity to, once in place, lighten your workload, strengthen your backup strategy, reduce your expenses on hardware and energy, and, well -- save the world.