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St. Lawrence College Goes Green with Energy-Efficient Data Centre - A CFO’s Perspective

2010-10-08

Since 1967, St. Lawrence College has provided its students with a comprehensive educational experience. By putting students’ interests at the forefront, SLC has earned an overall approval rating that is among the highest for community colleges in Ontario – for its learning environment, quality of faculty, and excellence in graduate preparation.

With campuses in Brockville, Kingston and Cornwall, Ontario, SLC delivers relevant, in-demand programs across state-of-the-art facilities, supported by a growing IT infrastructure.

A recent IBM study on student issues called “Inheriting a Complex World” indicated that the convergence of globalization and sustainability has become an urgent concern for students, even more so than for CEOs. SLC has seen the high priority that students place on green technology and sustainability, and responded with rich academic programs such as technician training for Energy Management Systems and Wind Turbine. There is even an on-campus demonstration house called Energy House, running entirely off the electricity grid, which was built to teach students some of the principles of energy conservation and energy management.

Rapid growth meets limited capacity

St. Lawrence College has grown 23 percent in just a few short years, and so has its technology requirements. The increased demand for computing was accompanied by an increase in IT power consumption, and the occurrence of troubling hot spots in the data centre. Intermittent power surges and outages were becoming a daily issue for IT staff, impacting the system’s availability to the student population. Other solutions had been implemented, such as virtualization, which had provided relief, but the growth in IT capacity requirements continued to outpace the power and space savings gained. A three-year technology refresh was already underway, but different types of data centres were still scattered across three campuses.

SLC’s mandate for environmental sustainability spurred the college to embark on a major green initiative: to find a high capacity and efficient data centre solution that would allow it to its their growth in high density computing, while demonstrating the Green Technology principles taught in its leading Green Technology Curriculum.

With a 24/7 operation, the college needed a data centre of significant scale and scope with a direct power source and an improved cooling system – one that could operate with a backup generator during prolonged power outages, while drastically reducing the server count.

The goal? Centralize technology, while taking advantage of virtual servers and reducing the overall amount of equipment. SLC also wanted a modular, scalable solution that enabled it to add more green technology in the future as funds became available. Finally, to achieve energy savings in a meaningful way, the college needed to bridge the gap between IT and facilities.

Walking the talk: A green data centre solution

“Once we decided that we needed to do this project, it became very important for us that it had green elements to it,” says Glenn Vollebregt, Senior Vice President of Finance and Administration for St. Lawrence College. “If we’re going to be a college that promotes sustainability and green, then we need to walk the talk, and we need to make sure anything that we do, any investment that we make, we’re making sure that we’ve covered our bases in terms of the green approach.”

SLC installed a fully functional scalable modular data centre (SMDC) from IBM in an existing office next to the previous data centre, allowing SLC to continue IT operations during construction. The relocation of the servers took place during the Christmas holidays, ensuring minimal disruptions.

In keeping with their mandate, SLC wanted to ensure that its investment in data centre technology promoted sustainability and energy management. To do that, it had to synchronize facilities and IT and the entire campus around accounting policies for energy use and cost. That’s why it was important to have all the players at the table for data centre initiatives.

“We just made a substantial investment from a facilities perspective into reducing our annual energy costs,” Vollebregt says. “From an accounting perspective we need to allocate our costs to our programs. The two largest components of a program’s cost are space and IT technology. Unless you put ownership in the hands of the folks who are running those programs you can’t make it a true, college-wide endeavour,”

SLC took a total cost approach to assessing the data centre, including an evaluation of energy efficiency. Because operating expenses were used instead of capital dollars, the power savings component was an important piece.

“The data centre project for us, first and foremost, became an issue of knowing the total cost of the project and how it fit into the cost structure of the college as a whole,” Vollebregt says. “Without extra capital, the college was able to use operating funds by positioning the SMDC as an investment opportunity for the college.”

“Data centres are energy hogs,” Vollebregt adds. “They’re shown to consume up to 80 times as much energy, per square metre, as office or classroom space. As part of the overall college energy management plan, it was really the business that drove this project.”

He continues, “Three or four years ago, if a green project crossed your desk, you would think, it’s going to be a lot of money, and the return isn’t going to be there. And that is no longer the case. A good solid investment needs to have a green component. If you take into account the full life cycle of costs, green projects can definitely stand on their own.”

Demonstrating the value of green: A trusted partner in IBM

Gaining business insight over financial decisions is one of the key means for CFOs to help their organizations perform successfully in the market. Through a step-by-step approach, IBM helped the college see how the SMDC could be aligned with student needs and their business model.

According to Vollebregt, “IBM started by asking us, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘How will it benefit your customers?’ The first priority was to answer those questions. IBM didn’t start with how to construct the data centre. Technology comes later. I think that was a tremendous way to start the project.”

“IBM brought together the engineering and the green technology and initiatives, and married it with the technology and the business aspect of the data centre initiative,” Vollebregt reports. “For us, it was like having a great facilitator in the room to manage all these different pieces. The IBM team brought forward the experience and the education and the background to the table.”

By tying all the pieces together, IBM showed SLC that with the SMDC, going “green” was a good investment for the college and met the needs of the growing student body, while also demonstrating social responsibility.

Vollebregt continues, “It was tremendous, actually. It was my first experience with the construction of a data centre. I remember at our first meeting, I was quite surprised and pleased that the person that we were dealing with was an engineer.”

Going green returns a greener bottom line

The built-in efficiency of the SMDC allows the college to meet growing capacity requirements, while saving money on energy costs. Much more efficient than the previous solution SLC had, the SMDC delivers almost seven times the power in a similar size space. Energy efficiency comes from trading expensive, inefficient and unreliable air conditioners for the efficient, high density InRow solution which significantly reduces the power consumption per unit of cooling.

“IT is a large user in the consumption of energy, so they need to participate in the sustainability of a college,” Vollebregt says. “As part of our data centre projects, we went from 70 servers to 12. So that alone was a huge reduction in terms of energy consumption.”

With an expected ROI of three to five years, Vollebregt believes the green aspect makes the data centre an even stronger investment. Working with the facilities group ensures the data centre tied into the college’s entire energy management system, generating significant new efficiencies.

In addition, the SMDC’s modular configuration allows the college to pay only for what it needs today, and it can easily expand the data centre as future needs dictate. Its flexibility ensures simple Moves, Adds and Changes (MACs), allowing them to add capacity and equipment anytime with no need for expensive or disruptive work in the data centre.

IT is now playing a leadership role in the sustainability of the college. Technology is integrated into every aspect of the business – a direct result of having all the players in the room together from the beginning of the project.

“Students are our customer and our core business,” Vollebregt states. “The payback for the investment must support that core business. Yes, the technology has to be up to speed, but it is not about the technology. It is about serving the customer and furthering the business.”

For more information Contact your IBM sales representative or IBM Business Partner.