By Caroline Beightol | May 2, 2016

There is a secret and unassuming energy hog lurking throughout our campus, consuming vast amounts of electricity. They are out of sight, but can be found in our buildings’... server rooms. Wilson Waldrop, IT Director of the Department of Physics, has been working with his team to make the Physics server room dramatically more efficient. 

As Wilson put it, leaving a server on is like “leaving a car running”. Not only are they always plugged in, but the room has to constantly be cooled to keep the servers from overheating. Many servers, like the one that hosts the department’s website, for example, need to be left running 24/7. However, others are rarely used or not used at all, and can be left on for years without notice, all the while consuming significant amounts of energy directly through the outlet and indirectly through the building’s increased cooling needs.

Wilson and his team began documenting every server in the room by contacting their users and monitoring their usage, a process he says took them about six months. If users said they no longer needed their servers, or did not reply, those servers were unplugged. If a server wasn’t being used anywhere near its capacity, the owner was encouraged to consider alternate options, like virtual servers, existing UW IT Services, or utilizing cloud infrastructure such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. Through this process, as well as server virtualization (the act of partitioning a physical server into a number of small, virtual servers with the help of virtualization software), Wilson and his team removed well over 70 servers from their server room, which has allowed them to cut their energy usage by half. All of the removed servers were either donated to other science departments on campus, or taken to UW Surplus.

Wilson says he simply hates to see waste, but removing unnecessary servers also saves his team time and reduces maintenance of these systems. Any chance he gets, he likes to incentivize people to co-locate their servers in an outside facility, which provides much better data protection, and saves departments the cost of installing power and cooling systems across campus. He and his team continue to monitor server usage, and virtualize the physical servers to make them more efficient.

“Technology should be making us bigger, better, faster, cheaper,” Wilson says, but “there is little to no incentive for faculty to choose the green option.” Nonetheless, server and system audits are the “responsible thing” for IT departments to do, according to Wilson, and they do have an impact on the economic and technological efficiency of a department.