Saving Green by Going Green

Bad puns aside, this is something that I am relatively proud of.  During our last round of purchases of computers I noticed a new option Dell has on their computer customization page called “Plant a Tree for Me”.  Dell has partnered with The Conservation Fund and to allow anyone buying a computer “to offset the CO2 emissions related to the use of an extended selection of IT products.”  Simply put, if you select this option you choose to donate a few dollars so that a tree (or two) will be planted for every computer purchased.

The last order we purchased was for new computer equipment to go into Young Hall once the renovation is complete.  One tree will be planted for every laptop, LCD monitor, and desktop in the order.  Totaling up our order, we would have over 200 trees planted for that purchase alone.  Soon we will need to order replacement computers for staff and faculty, as well as machines for many other labs and classroom spaces on campus.  For every order we make we will be including the “Plant a Tree for Me” option where we can.

One of the best parts (besides saving the planet that is) is that  by selecting this option, Dell provides a discount on our order.  We saved close to $20,000 on that order alone.  So by choosing to be environmentally conscious in our order, we are also able to save a great deal of money!

If you are interested in reading more about Dell’s “Plant a Tree for Me” program, check out these links!

June 28, 2010. Desktop Support, General Info, Projects. No Comments.

Virtualizing the Desktop

If you were to take a look at our inventory of computers on campus, you would find that we have somewhere near 700 individual computers on campus that end users have access to.  With a department as small as ours it can be taxing at best to support so many computers and when it comes time to buy new units to replace those that are growing old, our budget wouldn’t even come close to allowing us to replace them all at once.

Our Fix?  Right now we “trickle down” our computers before completely phasing them out.  An individual on campus that uses extremely demanding software for their job might get a new computer every few years, but someone that doesn’t use anything too demanding or perhaps only uses a computer sparingly will get a hand-me-down that came out of that high-end user’s office when it was replaced.  This allows us to extend the lives of our computers beyond the normal 2-3 year cycle to somewhere between 4 and 6 years (an eternity in computer terms).

Unfortunately by pushing these computers past their normally expected life times we encounter issues, from simple hardware breakdowns to the computer just not being fast enough to do what is asked of it.  So how do we extend the lives of our desktops without sacrificing the end user experience?  With any luck the solution is found in a product called VMware View.  View allows us to create a virtual desktop, a installation of Windows, just like that on any computer but running on an intermediate layer of software that allows you to install multiple operating systems on one machine and have them all run at the same time.  The idea can get pretty complex, but if you are interested in learning more about the idea behind virtualized computers VMware provides a fairly good video on YouTube here.

Using some estimated cost figures we put together while planning for deploying new computers, you can start to see one of the reasons to go to View.  For the cost of the two servers and software necessary to get them running properly, you could buy about 18 basic desktops, maybe a handful more.  The servers on the other hand can run an estimated 30 desktops without problem.  That’s a difference of 12 right there.  Every year we replace somewhere near 50-60 computers, if you took that money and put it into this system you could possibly be able to afford 100 virtual desktops instead.  That means more people get new computers more often, and you don’t break your budget in the process.

An added benefit of going with virtual desktops is that since all the work is done on a server here in the ITS offices, you don’t have to have the biggest and baddest computer at your desk.  The machine at your desk does nothing, so no matter the age you have a vast and powerful machine to do your work on.  No more waiting 5 minutes for Excel to open that spreadsheet or going to some website where the animation just kills your computer.  Additionally, when the servers here get old we just migrate all the data to a new set of servers and everyone logs in like normal, not even noticing that anything changed.

Additionally it also improves our ability to support users, as when a machine is infected with a virus or spyware, rather than having to go pick it up and bring it back, we might be able to connect to it remotely and see what the issue is.  If the issue demands that the computer be wiped and have Windows reinstalled all we have to do is click on a few buttons and in less than 15 minutes a brand new computer is ready for the user to log in, no more waiting 1-2 days before you can get back to work.

Right now our implementation of View is in its early phases. As of writing this we have six total machines in place, two in our Department of Public Safety, and another four in our Facilities Management Department, both of which have historically gotten hand-me-down computers that were nearing retirement. Later this summer we hope to expand our system to add additional servers which means more users can be supported with a virtual environment. As we expand we will keep adding users that have traditionally gotten hand-me-down computers. We hope later to expand the program to other office users so we may save money on replacement computers, and perhaps even on to computers in our general computing labs on campus. Its unlikely that every computer on campus will be come virtual, there are reasons not to virtualize a machine (specific devices connected physically to the computer, programs that require extreme power, etc), but the hope is that some day we will be able to cut our operating and maintenance costs by virtualizing a large portion of campus, all while improving the end user experience.

May 18, 2010. Desktop Support, General Info, Infrastructure. No Comments.

Possible Network Outages! Update

With the lessening of the rain the flow of water into our server room has slowed and with help from Facilities we have managed to stay ahead of the water and kept network services available to campus throughout the day.  We will evaluate the situation first thing in the morning, but we believe that the equipment in the our server room is no longer in danger and we should not need to interrupt campus network services.

However, keep in mind this situation could change over night with a change in the weather forecast.

Be aware, many members of the ITS staff will be working to clean up our data center tomorrow and this may affect our ability to answer Helpdesk requests in a timely fashion.  But, we will do our best to answer high priority request as quickly as possible.

May 3, 2010. General Info. No Comments.

Possible Network Outages

The extraordinary rain fall has cause ground water and a sewage backup in the basement of McReynolds Hall.  Our main campus data center is located in that basement.  As of 2:30 PM all campus network services are operating, and ITS with help from facilities it trying to clean up the mess and prevent the situation from escalating into a network system shutdown.  However, because water and electrical equipment do not mix well, we may have to shut systems down with little or no warning to prevent permanent damage.  If this occurs it could affect all network services, including our primary campus phone system.

We will be posting updates as we have more information.

May 2, 2010. Alerts, Infrastructure. No Comments.

The Great Recycling Purge of 2010

So how much computer and network junk does a small liberal arts college produce in a year?  I’m betting its more than you would expect.

When we take a computer out of an office or computer lab, we inspect it to see if it’s something that could go out on campus to a location that doesn’t need something with as much power behind it, or if we can cannibalize the parts.  When it’s been determined that a computer has lived a full and meaningful life, or if its just plain dead and ready to be sent on its way, we set it aside in a special location in the basement of Bingham hall.  We also do this for all the network and other electronic equipment that gets replaced over the course of a year, projectors that burn out, network switches that get hit by lightening, etc.  All this stuff piles up until we have a large enough load to send off for recycling.

As you can see from the photos, we didn’t fill up just one room, but two and a half.  Normally we like to clean this out every year, but went about a year and a half this last time, leaving us with quite a large pile.  In the past we have had to rent our own moving truck, load it all up, drive to a recycling facility in Lexington that is equipped to handle electronic recycling, and then pay for them to take it off our hands.  Thankfully that has changed as more and more companies move toward an more environmental outlook there are places that make their money purely off the scrap they sell after recycling.  We were contacted by a company named Scott Recycling out of Knoxville TN that would drive up here in a 24ft long moving van, help us load everything, and then haul it all away, completely free of charge.  Not only that, but they also are EPA certified and would provide us with a certificate ensuring that the materials would be properly disposed of.  Since most electronics (especially monitors and projectors) contain heavy medals like lead and mercury, its very important to be sure that they are properly disposed of and not allowed to sit in a location where those chemicals might leech into the ground water.

When it was all said and done ITS and CTL together managed to fill two and a half 24ft long moving vans.  When the totals came back, Scott Recycling had hauled away 16,366 pounds (8.183 tons) of materials for recycling.  For reference that would be about the weight of 5 2007 Mustang GT sports cars (or 61,862.44 bananas).

The pile in Bingham, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Loading the truck, 2, 3, 4, 5

An empty storage room, 2

March 12, 2010. General Info. No Comments.

Wha.. What are you doing to my computer?!?

At this point some of you may have noticed us coming through your office and poking around at your computer.  You may have asked yourself, “Just what exactly are they doing?”

As you might have gathered from my previous post, we are in the process of migrating to a new inventory system.  When we move to the new system we want to make 100% sure that the information going into it is correct from the start and the only way to be completely sure is to touch every computer on campus.

So what exactly are we doing to you computer?  The first thing we do is to check that everything has a Centre College asset tag on it, something to prove it belongs to the college and to help us track it.  Only large items should have these, you computer tower, monitor, phone, etc.  Your keyboard, mouse and speakers are usually tied to the computer itself and are so interchangeable that they just are included with the computer tower.  Once we have this information we go in and change the name of your computer to match this asset tag, making it easier to find that computer in our network.  The old scheme was to name your computer after you, but when staff changes sometimes we forget that step.  By using the asset tag to name your computer we ensure it only needs to be set once, then it’s never worried about again and as long as the inventory is up to date we can easily identify which machine specifically belongs to you.

So we have collected the asset tag on your computer and renamed it. Now what?  Next we check to make sure a few things are installed.  We use an inventory management tool called OCS.  This application can pull data on your machine that can tell us what is inside the case, that is installed (so we can maintain software updates), and lots more.  In order to pull this information a client has to be installed on every computer.  For most Windows machines on campus this is done automatically when you log in, however we have found a handful have had issues so to be sure we are checking everything.  Along with OCS we are checking that Keyserver (Sassafrass K2, I love that name) is installed as well.  This application handles most of our software licensing by communicating with a central server, and helps keep up legal and not using more licenses than we own.  Next we check that Adobe Creative Suites 4 and specifically Adobe Acrobat 9 is installed.  In the past there had been a few issues with it not showing up, so while we are at it we are double checking if its there or not.  Unfortunately installing and updating Adobe takes a VERY long time, so rather than install it while we are there we make note of the machine and once our walk-through is complete we will come back around to each machine with an issue and make sure Adobe gets properly installed.

The last program we check is an Apple specific application called Apple Remote Desktop.  When installed on a client machine, it gives those of us with the administration application the power to remote into your machine if you need assistance.  When we try to connect a box will pop up on your screen asking if you want to allow us to connect, and then we can take control of your computer from the comfort of our own office.  Now this doesn’t mean you won’t get to see our smiling faces again, only that if you have a quick 5 minute type thing that needs to be done ASAP, you don’t have to wait for us to make it over to your office.

Finally we are judging your monitor to see if it’s something that is decent enough to keep in service.  So what makes a monitor decent?  First and foremost, is it a LCD monitor or an older CRT?  If it’s a CRT, you are getting a new one.  If it’s an LCD is the color good and is it a 15″ monitor or larger?  If it’s a 15″ monitor its probably too small for anyone to really use, but if it’s a 17″ and the color on the screen isn’t off or the contrast is wrong then we will want to try and get some more life out of it before it gets sent to recycling.

While we are there we are also gathering similar information on your phone and any printers that belong to the college (not the big Ricohs, but any smaller HP ones).  Once we have all this information we update a giant Excel spreadsheet that has every computer on campus listed in it.  Once this is complete and we have a new inventory system in place, we will import all the data into the new system and can easily identify computers for replacement during the hardware refresh cycles or be able to see what is in your computer when it breaks and we need to order new parts.

And that’s it.  That’s what we are doing when we come and ask if we can borrow your computer for a few minutes.  The entire process usually takes only two to three minutes per computer and then we’re out of your hair!

March 12, 2010. Desktop Support, General Info, Projects. No Comments.

Identifying the need for a new inventory system

For the last few weeks we have been working on the our budgets over in the ITS office, for both the spring term and the next year.  One of the major parts of that budget is what we call our “hardware refresh”, replacing staff and faculty computers on campus that are identified as being out of warranty service or not powerful enough to run the applications they need to.  Once we have an idea of how much money we have to spend on new machines and what the cost of replacement hardware is, we can start identifying the machines on campus that need to be replaced.  Almost immediately it became apparent that this was not going to be an easy task.  We knew what he had to spend and how much each machine would cost, but we really didn’t have a good idea what was out on campus.

The system that had been used previously was to export a list of computers on campus from an application designed to gather a laundry list of information on the computers its installed on.  Once this list was gathered someone could comb over it and identify the computers that were too old or slow to be useful any longer.  I probably should take a moment here and describe the application we use to gather this information.  Some time before I returned to Centre as a staff member, the need for an application that would catalog all hardware and software was identified.  There are many different applications out there that achieve this task with various levels of success.  In the end the choice was made to use an OpenSource project called OCS Inventory NG.  By setting up a server and installing the client component on all your target machines it allows you to remotely collect a wealth of information from CPU count and speed, amount of RAM, what hardware is in the machine, even what is installed on the machine.  Its an extremely powerful tool, but it comes with a few drawbacks.

The first drawback most likely be the interface.  Over all its not bad at all, the issue is that the data you are looking for is spread out and not easily exported in bulk.  You can easily search and return number of processors, how fast they are, amount of RAM, etc but other fields like MAC address or information about the monitor can’t easily be returned.  Instead you have to open each individual computer and navigate to the page that would hold the data you need.  Not a major issue when looking at a handful of computers, but when you want to return all the computers on campus it becomes a headache.

The second drawback is that it requires someone to fairly hands-on with database.  If you have a Microsoft Windows domain, you can configure a GPO that will install the client automatically, however any computers not on the network or any non-Windows machines can’t get the client installed.  This means any Linux, Mac OS, or non-domain based Windows computers need the client installed by hand.  Additionally you have to be prepared to deal with duplicates in your database, either because a single computer was reimaged and put back out on campus so now a old version of the computer shows up next to a new image.  You might also end up with a case where a user had gotten a brand new computer and the old one taken away for recycling, however both show up in the database.  Now if you had been the one that replaced the computers during the last cycle or throughout the year as things broken down you could probably identify off the top of your head what is current and what is no longer correct.  Unfortunately the two people that had this knowledge accepted new career opportunities within a few weeks of one another.

As we worked though everything you have read above we came to the conclusion that while OCS provided a great deal of information, we need more.  We needed to be able to identify what is still active, what is a duplicate, what asset tag is associated with that machine, even what Purchase Order was used to buy the machine.  These bits of information can be added to OCS, but not easily.  We came up on the idea of using OCS as a data collection tool, but not using its interface.  We would design our own system, putting in some information of our own by hand, then pulling all the information we want about a specific machine from the OCS database.  This would also let us tie in our administrative database so we can associate a machine with a user and be able to pull in office location information, phone numbers, etc with it.  Even tie in our helpdesk ticketing system and see what service tickets are tied to a machine.

So now we know how to fix our inventory problem, but were do we start?  We had two deciding factors here.  A, we needed inventory information now and couldn’t really wait to develop a new system and then pull the information out of it, and B, we don’t want to build a new system and then immediately fill it with garbage and unconfirmed information.  The decision was clear, we need to hit every computer on campus and collect information to build one master spreadsheet of every piece of hardware we can find so that we can do our budgeting now and have the information ready for import when the new system is up and running.

There is a bit more to it than just that, but that enough for another topic.  In fact keep an eye out because soon we’ll try to explain just what it is we are doing when we come by your office to inventory your computer and how it will help us as we build our new inventory system.

February 19, 2010. Desktop Support, General Info, Projects. No Comments.

Acheson-Caldwell, back on the network!

As of 9:45 pm our cabling vendor has completed the install of the new fiber-optic cable from Cheek-Evans to Acheson-Caldwell, and data service has been restored to that building.

We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience.

November 17, 2009. General Info. No Comments.

Network Outage in Acheson-Caldwell

Today at about 11:30 am network access to Acheson-Caldwell was cut.  After trouble-shooting the problem we determined that the fiber optic cable that supplies data access to Acheson-Caldwell had been physically damaged.

Our cabling vendor arrived on campus shortly after 5:00 pm this evening and is in the process of replacing the cable between Cheek-Evans and Acheson-Caldwell.  Once this work is completed we will be able to bring Acheson-Caldwell back online.  Our vendor believes the work will take about 4 more hours.

We will be investigating the problem further to determine the exact cause of the damage in hopes of preventing it in the future.

We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience.

November 17, 2009. General Info. No Comments.

Wireless Network Fixed

Full wireless network service has returned, we apologize for the inadvertent wired network problem that was created while the manufacture was working on correcting our wireless issues.


Thank you for your understanding.

April 30, 2009. General Info. No Comments.

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