Greener IT through bicycling and VoIP

“It’s not easy being green.”

My blog, if you read it from the web page, is green. That’s entirely coincidental. Green happens to be a color I like; I’m not trying to make any particular statements with the color of my blog (except that PSU blue was getting a bit stale).

The focus of “green IT” is mostly on lowering the energy use and heat production of servers, through more efficient servers or a reduction in the amount of actual hardware. In the non-VoIP part of my group, we’re digging into a virtualization project that should reduce 50 pieces of server hardware down to about four if everything works out perfectly. Even a five-to-one reduction would be fine. I’m excited about this project for a number of reasons; one of them is that I won’t have to look at as much hardware in the server room. Fewer server problems should be diagnosed as hardware problems. And hardware problems won’t be so catastrophic–just use some VM magic to move a server from failing hardware to working hardware. This “greening” of IT first involves putting down a lot of green (money) before we see any environmental benefit, which will be secondary to all the system management benefits, the main reason we’re doing it all in the first place.

In a number of years, equipment rooms and power and cooling requirements will have shrunk but we’ll still be committing all kinds of environmental crimes through our still-growing IT staff: driving internal combustion engines at $10+/gallon of gasoline. Two losses of green there: the environment eats our exhaust and the gas stations eat our cash.

Several years ago, Penn State ITS bought a number of efficient departmental vehicles for the staff to use to travel around campus. These four-speed one-seaters are human-powered and the only emissions are from the driver. Sadly, the ITS bikes have been seen around campus turning to rust. Some have been reclaimed and are in active use; Telecom Building has one that gets regular use and I have heard rumor that 300 W College uses one now too. This program could use some fresh support. Biking around campus is pretty easy and you can take shortcuts; there’s no getting stuck in traffic or waiting for the shuttle.

I sit here writing a blog at 6 pm because I biked to work this morning, as I have done most mornings since early May. However, the weather (stormy at the moment) sometimes dictates my schedule. A worthwhile tradeoff, in my opinion: I’m saving money, getting into better shape, enjoying the outdoors, and not polluting. Several of my coworkers also ride to work. This is just one shade of a green IT department.

VoIP and close relative VCoIP (video conferencing over IP) come into play by allowing us to meet from wherever we may be. Phone calls are cheap, conference calling is easy, and video is available on every Mac laptop (and before long, on every laptop). Set up XMeeting on your Mac and participate in video conferencing, wherever you are. It even works through a VPN (somewhat lower quality but usable). Meeting face-to-face and handing out paper copies of documents is familiar and makes us feel like we’re doing business; the greener IT department can do the same thing using video conferencing with side content (whiteboards, Power Point, wikis, etc.). When the personal interaction is the main goal, Penn State’s videoconferencing services meet the need; for a meeting that needs a lot of electronic content delivery, Adobe Connect does a great job. We have the tools right at our fingertips.

Someday we’ll get the hang of telecommuting and people will be able to telecommute more easily. I know other organizations–non-edu, anyway–have already figured this out, but it’s still an awkward thing in higher ed. I heard an analyst say this at a VoIP conference last year, and she’s right. Telecommuting should not be a goal for a greener IT department, but we can all use the concepts and technologies that are part of the telecommuting method to be more environment-friendly and economical in our daily business.

Separate voice/data networks vs. VLAN tagging/trunking

I’m answering this comment-question on the main blog because it’s a new topic; also, because I’d be glad to hear more about this topic.

Richard Rauscher said:

Bill, i have a question that’s been burning inside for a while — why do we implement separate networks for voice and data? Why not just use 802.1p/q and DiffServ?

I’ve been through three VoIP implementations, 2 with Cisco Phones & Call Manager and 1 with 3COM NBX’s. I’ve always kept the phones and data on the same network with no insurmountable problems.


The answer to this question is entirely non-technical. There may be technical reasons also, but I believe the non-technical reason fully covers it. (Note: this answer reflects my point of view from working in operations and my understanding of decisions made before my employment in the department even began. It is neither comprehensive nor authoritative.)

Cisco VoIP service offered by TNS at University Park is fully managed by TNS — phone, jack, cabling, LAN equipment, everything. TNS also offers fully-managed data LANs but departments are not required to subscribe to this management for their data networks, and many do not. The simplicity of having one “voice network” infrastructure, as opposed to some of the infrastructure being stand-alone voice and some being integrated with a TNS-managed data LAN, is a significant factor in service management.

Data and voice packets traverse the same core network–there is not a separate physical core network for VoIP. The separation in the core is entirely logical (IP addressing/subnetting and access controls).

Richard (and others): What functionality could be gained, in Penn State’s situation, by creating more of a converged data/voice network? Thanks for your question, and I look forward to hearing more.