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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > December 2019

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Vol. 39 No. 10 — December 2019
THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN

Working Toward More Sustainable Technology
by Marshall Breeding


Libraries can make a difference in the global movement to improve sustainability by deploying technologies that reduce energy use and that favor renewable resources. Compared to some industries or other business sectors, libraries don’t necessarily stand out as major energy consumers, although the cumulative impact can be substantial. Nonetheless, it is important for libraries, as prominent institutions within society, to set a positive example and work toward achieving more sustainable practices. The technology-oriented suggestions discussed below would naturally fit in a broader sustainability plan that addresses building design, power management, and utility sourcing. 

SaaS or Hosted Services

In almost all cases, running systems on computers physically housed in the library consumes more resources when compared to accessing the same functionality through externally hosted services residing in a large-scale data center. The level of potential environmental efficiency corresponds directly to the scale of a data center. The small computer rooms seen in libraries that host their own ILSs, web servers, and other applications fall on the more energy-intensive side of the scale. Even the data centers of a typical university or governmental agency lack the scale to operate at optimal environmental efficiency. In addition to the computers themselves, the cooling equipment, uninterruptible power sources, and other overhead equipment contribute to a heavy power ratio relative to computer processing and storage. 

The benefits of shifting computing from local equipment to cloud services to gain significant energy savings have been demonstrated through a research project conducted at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: “Our results suggest that the potential for energy savings is substantial: if all U.S. business users shifted their email, productivity software, and CRM software to the cloud, the primary energy footprint of these software applications might be reduced by as much as 87% or 326 Petajoules” (“The Energy Efficiency Potential of Cloud-Based Software: A U.S. Case Study.” Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. June 2013; crd.lbl.gov/assets/pubs_presos/ACS/cloud_efficiency_study.pdf).

The data centers of the largest hosting providers are motivated to operate at peak environmental efficiency since energy costs are a significant budget factor. These centers can reduce their costs by using server equipment rated for lower energy consumption, using virtualization to increase overall resource utilization, and consolidating applications to reduce the number of physical servers. The computing power and storage capabilities of current server technology generally exceed the requirements of any given software application. Any given software application will use only a fraction of available computing resources. Virtualization and consolidation achieve higher resource utilization, reducing the number of servers required and, in turn, reducing the potential energy consumption. 

The energy-saving transition from hosting applications on-site to hosted services is consistent with a generally beneficial trend in library computing that has been underway for the last decade. The shift to SaaS and hosted services frees the technical personnel in the library from mundane tasks such as server administration to perform more interesting work related to creating and supporting more visible services for patrons and library operations. While there may be some cases in which local hosting of library applications is required, adopting hosted services usually results in organizational benefits and offers potential energy savings. 

Energy Efficiency in Data Centers

Large-scale data centers take extra­ordinary measures to minimize energy consumption since it is a major component of their operational costs. Whether the data center is operated within an institutional setting, by a software vendor, or by a global infrastructure provider, the design and configuration of the facility have a significant environmental impact. Sustainability factors to be considered by a hosting provider would include the overall efficiency in its power consumption, use of electricity from renewable sources, and facility design and configuration to optimize cooling efficiency. 

Data centers’ work toward achieving energy efficiency is usually measured by the power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratio. This score describes overall power consumption related to computing, such as the overhead of the required supporting infrastructure. This overhead would include equipment for cooling, power distribution, and other non-computing tasks. Google, for instance, has achieved phenomenal efficiency in its data centers, reporting a 1.11 PUE in 2019, down from 1.23 in 2008 (google.com/about/datacenters/efficiency/how). Data centers can also get their power from sustainable sources such as electricity generated by wind turbines or solar panels. Amazon describes its sustainability efforts as including a commitment to work toward eventually acquiring all power from such renewable resources. In 2018, Amazon reported it had achieved 50% use of renewable energy (aws.amazon.com/about-aws/sustainability). As an example of an infrastructure provider involved in the library arena, Equinix, used by Ex Libris for its cloud services, reports having achieved 92% renewable energy usage in 2018 (equinix.com/data-centers/design/green-data-centers).

The layout and configuration of data centers also make a significant difference in energy consumption since cooling computer equipment is a major component of the energy overhead for a data center. Rather than cooling the entire facility, most data centers have moved to a hot aisle/cold aisle configuration. This system drastically reduces the space to be cooled. Containment partitions enable cold air currents moving across the servers to be separated from the exhaust of warm air exiting the server racks. 

However, it is not practical for a library’s selection of software services to be based solely on the provider’s sustainability efforts. Selection criteria must emphasize critical factors such as delivering on functional requirements and the quality of vendor support. Libraries can include environmental disclosures in their requirements for a hosted service, along with performance, reliability, and security measures. 

Computing in the Library

The selection of computing equipment for use in the library can also have an environmental impact. In general, an inventory strategy that favors appropriate lower profile devices and that continually phases in newer and more energy-efficient equipment will both save energy and meet expectations for increased flexibility and mobility. 

Maintaining an inventory of modern computing equipment goes a long way toward better sustainability, since each generation of computing equipment consumes far less energy than its predecessor. Older desktop computers and monitors were notorious power hogs. Today’s computers not only use a fraction of the energy, but also include power management tools that enable users to make selections to optimize efficiency according to use patterns. The ability to automatically set when a device enters sleep mode, blanks the screen, or powers off entirely results in much more efficient use of energy than depending on library personnel to power down equipment as part of the daily closing routine.

Some options to consider in the placement of computers might include the following:

  • Provide laptop computers to library personnel—possibly with external monitor panels and docking stations—instead of desktop computers.
  • Offer tablets, which may work well for some activities that involve roving service or work in the stacks for retrieving requested items.
  • Use smaller-profile desktop computers for public access, utilizing solid state disks and power management settings that automatically go into low-power modes when not in use.
  • Select equipment with positive Energy Star (energystar.gov/about) ratings. 
  • When possible, budget for an equipment replacement cycle in which older, less-efficient equipment is routinely taken out of service.
  • Participate in environmentally friendly computer recycling programs for equipment no longer in service.

It’s fortunate that most of the trends in how libraries deploy technology are fairly consistent with the goal of decreasing energy consumption. In fact, most of the technology strategies that a library might follow to improve environmental sustainability align well with ongoing library technology trends. Libraries do not necessarily need to compromise the ways they use technology to support their operations and services in order to become better stewards of environmental resources.


Marshall Breeding is an independent consultant, writer, and frequent library conference speaker and is the founder of Library Technology Guides (librarytechnology.org). His email address is marshall.breeding@librarytechnology.org.