Many network managers mark the beginning of a new IT initiative by powering on machines. For Ethan Fener, his plan to improve efficiencies at Partners Healthcare System requires powering down some 25,000 desktops. Fener, director of application development at the Boston-based non-profit organisation, is fine-tuning his planned rollout of free tools from the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. When coupled with his existing Altiris desktop management software, the tools can shut down local and remote client machines that aren't in use.

According to Fener's calculations, Partners could save about $2.2 million on electricity costs if IT is able to put thousands of unused machines to sleep at night, on weekends and during other times of inactivity. "The numbers are attention-getting. The out-of-pocket costs are quite low, and the potential savings are more than $2 million," Fener said.

Calculating savings

Fener started investigating the benefits of managing power consumption on desktops in 2006 when Microsoft shared details of its Vista operating system. The vendor claims the power-management features built into Vista can save $16 to $30 per machine per year.

"I found the information very interesting but also quite useless, because we have no Vista and no plans to have a lot of it for a long time," he said. "But it also stirred such an interest in me that I had to learn more, to see if there was a way to do this on our desktops."

First Fener wanted to learn what kinds of savings were possible at his organisation, so he studied his user community. He found that about 32 per cent of Partners desktop users shut down their machines at night during the week, and at weekends that number grew to 40 per cent. With 60 per cent of client machines running but unused, Fener determined the opportunity for savings was significant enough to start his project.

"We factored in EPA's figures on how much inactivity a computer sees during an eight-hour workday, and we went to HR to learn about average sick time and vacation time. We incorporated many factors that just kept improving our potential for savings," he said.

With Windows 2000 and XP machines in house, Fener asked Microsoft if his existing operating systems could be retrofitted to save power. The vendor pointed him to the government's Energy Star program, which provides interested parties with free dynamic link libraries (DLL) that, when configured for a desktop environment, can observe a group policy object (GPO) to control power and other settings on client machines.

Energy Star's EZ GPO software is free for download and works with Windows 2000 and 2003 servers, and Windows 2000 and XP client operating systems.

The software allows network administrators to centrally control power management settings via GPOs. To Fener, that meant he could enable features on thousands of desktops that would let IT staff monitor power on client machines and then activate system standby, which in essence puts the computer -- the CPU, hard drive and more -- to sleep.

"Clearly, when you are talking about $2.2 million in savings, it's worth the effort to make this happen," Fener said.

Overcoming obstacles

A few glitches cropped up right away. To start, some of Partners' clinical care locations could not be included in the cost-savings initiative. Fener needed to restrict the number of machines he could shut down to desktops used for business purposes, such as finance and information systems.

"We have 2,000 devices that could not be included because they need to run all the time and their use is too time-sensitive to operate within this shutdown system," he said.

In addition, Fener remained uncertain that his cost-savings calculations would apply across the eight Boston-area locations he targeted for pilots. "Depending on the hospital or location, the electricity comes from different places, so in my estimates there was as much as a 30 per cent difference in electricity costs between certain sites," he said.

Fener also ran into technical difficulties he didn't anticipate.

"We implemented the free tools and found out that what sounded easy actually was not," he explained. "When we started to figure out how you can actually do this, well that is when things got more difficult."

For example, Fener and his staff often update software and distribute patches off-hours and at night -- during the same time periods when the desktops were to be shut down to conserve power. While the free DLL worked well for the monitors -- monitors can wake up within two seconds, according to Fener -- the software didn't work as consistently with computers that would be shut down completely. The policy dictates that when a machine is inactive for 30 minutes it goes into standby mode, which for all intents and purposes means it is shut down and needs to be woken up to receive software updates.

"Having machines inaccessible to updates would disturb our patching process, and we needed to find a way to work around that," Fener said.

Adding to this hurdle were desktops at disparate remote locations that didn't seem to respond to the policy settings he enabled via the free tools. "More nettlesome was the remote-control agent. When machines were in standby mode, the remote-control agent couldn't wake them up," Fener said.

To address that issue, Fener worked with Altiris to enable the software maker's distributed agents to be able to wake up desktop machines in standby mode. He and the vendor attempted to duplicate the problem on a test machine and found it could be rectified.

"Altiris delivered a fix, so we can now remotely support a machine in standby," he said.

To address the software distribution scheduling issue, Fener devised a system for planned rollouts. For instance, if he knows IT is rolling out a patch or a software update on a Wednesday night, the desktops will be programmed to wake up from 0200 until 0300 to receive the software. In unplanned scenarios, the DLLs and Altiris software can wake up machines.

"We have to build these processes for exception handling, for such instances, but also for people in the end-user community who may believe that their machine is special and should never be put into standby mode," he said. "We are working on technical opt-outs and other processes to build these unique cases into the overall plan."

Moving from planning to piloting

Having identified the viable machines and configured the free and commercial software, Fener is set to launch the electricity-saving project in pilot mode.

One of Partners' 600 PC locations will host the first pilot, which is due to begin in mid-March. Fener then plans to expand the pilot to include several more machines to ensure the software can scale.

"For the first month or two, we will road-test this on machines that are 100 per cent IS staff. Then if there are any problems, we would have done it on a few thousand machines and we can work out whatever kinks before bringing this to the larger community," Fener explained.

Because of the variations in electricity costs among locations, Fener is not certain if each location will see equal savings monthly, but he is confident that the plan will significantly reduce Partners' annual electricity costs.

"We plan to get all targeted desktops done by June, and as far as I can tell, the savings will be immediate," he said. "As soon as the machine is complying with the group policy, it will be saving electricity and money."