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Green computing for less with Vista and Windows Server 2008

While virtualization and server consolidation work wonders toward reducing energy waste, they can be costly to implement. These three power management tools help put some green in your environment – without taking too much from your wallet.

For businesses interested in reducing the power footprint of their computing environment and exchanging wallet green for environmental green, managing power resources is quickly becoming a critical need. In today's political and economic environments, environment-friendly initiatives have matured from their grass roots birthplace to an industry-recognized and budget-influencing requirement.

In dealing with the hustle and bustle of daily firefighting, many IT professionals may not be aware that solutions are slowly presenting themselves to resolve this problem. Technologies like virtualization and server consolidation have evolved to mature tools for reducing power waste and getting more out of each costly electron. Unfortunately, while some of these solutions have consumed their share of the green press, they can be expensive to deploy and only really solve the problem back in the data center. If you've got 10 servers and 150 desktops, virtualization's consolidation premise simply isn't enough. You need to look amongst your desktops as much as your data center.

Fortunately for Windows admins, there are three easy-to-implement tools that can help reduce that overall cost. Some tools come out of the box with Microsoft's Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 operating systems, while others require special hardware or client software. All are another step toward reducing power costs and bringing green practices to IT.

Group Policy power management

If your environment makes use of Windows 2008 or Windows Vista, built into those operating systems are some much-desired tools that simplify the process of centrally managing power configurations.

If your environment makes use of Windows Server 2008 or Windows Vista, built into those operating systems are some much-desired tools that simplify the process of centrally managing power configurations. Leveraging Windows Group Policy, administrators can implement new power management settings that dictate when computers turn off their monitors, power down their hard drives and go to sleep entirely. For each of those configurations, you can configure how many seconds of idle behavior must elapse before each is powered down.

A best practice with those settings is to iterate first through those with the least impact, followed by iterating those that add further power savings but more impact to the user's experience. For example, disabling the monitor after 60 minutes of inactivity, spinning down the hard drive after 120 minutes and sending the computer into sleep mode after 180 minutes can lower your costs while helping reduce user irritation.

In addition, you can set the power plan for Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 machines, which impacts how processors change their power states during periods of inactivity. Changing the active power plan from high performance to power saver allows you to save a small percentage of additional power through processor conservation with a negligible impact on performance.

Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 power management are all contained in the Power.admx Group Policy definition file. You can learn more about power states and the impact of Power Plans on performance from Microsoft's website.

Energy Star

Of course all these new power management features are only available once you've upgraded your clients to Windows Vista and your servers to Windows Server 2008. Many IT organizations will find themselves working with older versions of these operating systems for a long time to come. For those relegated to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, another option is available for managing power settings in the form of a client software combination that is managed through a customized Group Policy. This EZ GPO software is available through Energy Star.

Did you know?

Xcel Energy business customers in America's mountain west pay about 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity.  For organizations with as few as 500 desktops, laptops, and servers in their computing environment, these numbers translate to a cost of about $45,000 per year just to power those computers' hard drives, CPU's, and monitors.  That's a lot of green, a portion of which is unnecessarily wasted as the System Idle Process idly passes time during periods of non-use.

Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy with the charter of assisting consumers and businesses on power costs while protecting the environment. The Energy Star EZ GPO software is distributed through open source licensing, which makes it effectively free for use by consumers and businesses. In order to make use of the tool, administrators must download and install its client software to each client within their network and upload the EZ_GPO.adm custom ADM file into Group Policy. These two components work together to ensure that computers are powered off at specified intervals and later powered on when needed.

Faronics Power Save

The problems with freeware software involve its level of support and available features. The complex process of powering computers off and on within your environment can sometimes be risky. There are often times when middle-of-the-night activities, such as patch management and automated software installation, require Windows systems to be awake to receive updates. In those cases, it is more challenging to use tools like EZ GPO than for-cost solutions like Faronics Power Save.

The Faronics tool goes a step above and beyond what you get with either of the other tools because it enables systems management toolsets to wake up systems as necessary to complete after-hours activities. It also enables power reduction activities to occur based on usage rather than time delays or hard-set hours of the day. Whereas time delays still require a few hours of inactivity before power reduction activities can take place -- and where hard-set hours can impact late-working employees -- the Faronics toolset makes power-reducing decisions based on actual keyboard and mouse movements and processor utilization. This means that as soon as activity ceases, you can begin saving money.

Along with that extensibility, Faronics Power Save is also available at a low cost.

As you can see from the three toolsets above, vendors are hearing the call that wasted power is an unnecessary cost to IT and the business. Toolsets like these, as well as virtualization and systems consolidation, all work together to reduce electricity waste while at the same time adding a green sheen to IT business practices.

Greg Shields, MCSE, is an independent author and consultant based in Denver with many years of IT architecture and enterprise administration experience. He is an IT trainer and speaker on such IT topics as Microsoft administration, systems management and monitoring, and virtualization. His recent book Windows Server 2008: What's New/What's Changed is available from Sapien Press.

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