Powering down the PC problem

If the popularity of low-energy light bulbs in the consumer realm is anything to go by, the need for more circumspect use of electricity seems now to be widely appreciated. Regrettably, this doesn’t appear to apply to corporate computing. In particular, the humble desktop has become a rapacious consumer of power, yet little is ever done to curtail its appetite.

On the whole, the subject of energy efficiency on the desktop has traditionally been eclipsed by areas of the IT infrastructure that are, quite rightly, considered mission critical – chiefly the data centre. Indeed, the data centre has for some become the single issue driving the environmental campaign in IT. The combination of intense blasts of heat from servers and gusts of ice-cold air from the noisy servers make energy use within the data centre physically tangible.

Not so the desktop, where boxes sit sucking up power unnoticed. Tackling this desktop dilemma necessitates engaging employees with the problem, says Vic Smith, an enterprise technologist at computer maker Dell.

Always on

A cursory glance at the costs associated with the desktop estate will alert many managers to the scale of the problem. In the UK, for example, there are approximately 10 million work PCs currently in active service. Research conducted by the National Energy Foundation in conjunction with power-management tool provider 1E, estimates that of these, around 1.7 million are routinely left running when not in use.

For the UK business community, this equates to around 1.5 billion kiloWatt of electricity wasted every year, carrying a price tag of £115 million. Nearly one sixth of all PCs are not turned off at night, or on weekends. In the US the problem is worse. There, 20% of employees confess to “never” switching their PCS off at all. 

Indeed, says Ed English, Server Business Manager, Dell EMEA, the majority of large organisations are forced to expend even more energy on air-conditioning – itself a notoriously energy-hungry utility – in order to counter-act the wasted heat generated by droves of unproductive PCs.


Misinformation and mismanagement

The National Energy Foundation has sought to uncover some of the reasons why this wasteful approach to powering down PCs persists. When employees were asked why they habitually fail to switch-off their PCs, the answers revealed a PC-using workforce that is not only misinformed but systematically mismanaged.

Of those that do not switch off their machines overnight, 17% cited the general “hassle” of doing so; a chunky 10% said it was simply “not important”; a further 10% justified the practice on the basis that no-one else in the office shuts down their machine; and 8% confessed they were just too preoccupied with making a speedy exit at the end of the day to spare the time signing off.

Even so, management cannot escape its share of responsibility. Of those PC users surveyed, 88% claimed managers had never instructed them to power down machines – indeed many are told to keep PCs turned on. There are two main reasons for this: security and business continuity – in particular the need to back-up data and distribute security software patches.

Nearly all third-party remote backup service providers require clients to leave their desktop servers running over night; it is the only practical window for the provider to realistically perform the service. Even when this function is fulfilled in-house, there are many critical applications for which night time back-up is essential, particularly in the case of large databases where the contents can take hours to transfer to tape. For the vast majority of organisations, executing this task during the day is simply not feasible.

“Performing a full back-up of data at night is an intensive process that will saturate the environment,” explains Greg Day, a security analyst at McAfee. “Organisations worry about restricting network access during the day,” he adds. Similarly, companies will tend to perform patch management and install software updates after hours, in order not to impede workers.

“If all the PCs are turned off when the IT department needs to do this,” adds Kevin O’Donovan, strategic marketing manager at chip vendor Intel, “they’re in trouble”. And as businesses grow savvier and more proactive about securing their data, as well as their networks, the night-time function looks likely to become more, not less, important.


But this reasoning is beginning to look flawed, insists Dell’s Smith: leaving a PC on all night “just to back it up or issue a patch doesn’t make much sense”. Instead, companies should start to invest in an emerging range of power-management tools that allow the IT department to turn PCs on and off remotely, he insists.

A number of vendors, including UK-based 1E, Seattle software start-up Verdiem, and California-based Faronics, are promising to ease this tension, offering a range of sophisticated, centralised software management tools that allow enterprises to apply advanced power configuration rules.

One early adopter is Peterborough City Council: it has implemented 1E’s product, Nightwatchman, to ensure the efficient power management of its 2,500 desktop PC estate. The council estimates the tool will enable some £50,000 in annual cost-savings by automatically shutting down the 30% of its PCs it believes have been historically left on each night.

Mission critical computers are exempted from the automatic shutdown process through the use of an ‘exclusion list’, to which particular IP addresses can be added when required. Open applications are safely closed, and unsaved files are automatically saved to the hard drive and their location flagged up when the PC is powered on again. Additionally, 1E’s SMSWakeUp tool, can power up PCs remotely for security and maintenance procedures, or to ensure PCs are alert, ready and waiting for users in the morning.

Elsewhere, banking giant HSBC, telecoms provider Verizon, and publishing giant Random House have also adopted similar power management tools. As the technology begins to mature, other major organisations look likely to follow their lead – and the sophistication of these tools grows rapidly.

No conflict

Faronics, for example, is able to shut down or hibernate computers based not on rigid clock settings, but on CPU, disk and even application activity. This last feature allows a system to remain powered on whenever a certain application is running, thereby significantly enhancing the granularity of the entire power-management function.

Meanwhile, Verdiem is understood to be developing intelligence that would allow the power-down function to know when a user has simply stepped away from the computer rather than having left for the entire day, based on an analysis of their working patterns. Verdiem also provides tools which allow users to set power management rules based on personal requirements, giving them greater control.

Such emerging technologies promise that the mission-critical requirements of the enterprise – whether these be security or business continuity related – need not conflict with an overall drive towards power efficiency.

The benefits of this granular approach to PC power management are clear: IT advisory group Gartner estimates that these technologies can be expected to consume 50% less energy in running their desktops than an unmanaged environment. While energy prices remain high and customers begin to reward eco-aware businesses, those sorts of numbers are likely to be compelling. The days of power-profligate PCs could be numbered.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

Related Topics