Using Linux to Improve Energy Efficiency and Productivity

Monday Aug 22nd 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Tools like ZoneMinder, HEYU and Motion and boost your business’s energy efficiency.

In this "new economy," I've noticed that some businesses are giving power consumption a strong second look. This is part of a renewed push for company productivity. And it’s led to increased interest in new technology being used to keep the enterprise space humming along.

In this article, I will explore how companies can use Linux-based technology to cut energy consumption while also boosting productivity at the same time.

An efficient office starts with power consumption

There's been a long-standing belief that office automation is just too expensive to bother with. From possible higher hardware costs, all the way down to software licenses that are targeting large enterprise customers at high rates. The barrier to entry feels too high, thanks in part to costly price points within the automation industry.

On the do it yourself (DIY) front, going with a Linux-based solution is not only affordable, it's downright practical. Because there's no stipulation stating that one must hire an outside firm to set up office space automation, the choice of installing in-house or outsourcing the task is left to the decision makers.

This allows for near complete freedom to carry out a self-installation via an existing IT team, thus keeping control of the entire situation under one roof. And one place that I think is a no-brainer place to start is wasted energy usage.

Most offices have the ability to turn off their lights when they leave for the day, however, you might be shocked at how many don't have any type of lighting timer setup to manage this automatically instead. On the Linux platform, there's a great tool called HEYU that handles this need quite nicely and inexpensively.

HEYU is designed to schedule lighting events based on time or dates provided by the end-user. Using inexpensive X10 components, a company is then capable of handling their lighting needs automatically. And unlike many tools that handle lighting for dawn/dusk events only, HEYU also allows for holiday schedules to be handled automatically. This is a very nice little bonus for a command line program.

Another area where lighting comes into play is within office space believed to be used frequently when, in fact, this isn't the case at all. Using motion sensor lighting would only offer some mild comic relief instead of providing any measurable value.

The best option here is to use an IP camera with software for Linux called Motion. Motion is perfect for single site motion monitoring. It's easy to install and even easier to use. Without using anything else, you can discover quickly whether or not a specific area of the office is wasting lighting resources based on time of use.

Even better, you may find that there are times of the day where the lights are left on and they don't need to be. This is where HEYU can be used once again, but just for that specific area.

Employee safety and monitoring

I don't believe any employee finds the idea of being monitored via a closed circuit camera all that appealing. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with making sure that the building is secure should an intruder make his way into the place of employment. A visual alert to an intruder can be critical during business hours, where a traditional alarm system might be best suited for after hours use.

In instances like this, I believe that the best software for the job is going to be ZoneMinder. Using ZoneMinder is a natural fit for the workplace looking to keep things secure with closed circuit video because of the available functionality provided by the software.

Cameras are easily setup to watch the outside building area, monitoring potential problems such as a car prowling. And thanks to the ability to set up pan/tilt, the department in charge of monitoring these cameras can do so with great control. Another benefit that can come into play with ZoneMinder is that you can set up multiple zones per camera. This means that if you need to monitor the area to the side of an entrance area, but would rather not trigger the space where employees are walking in, ZoneMinder's independent zones per camera could be invaluable here.

In addition to ensuring employee safety this can also be used in making sure they're not slacking off. Instead of peeping over their shoulder directly, consider a less intrusive way to do this by using ZoneMinder to monitor breakroom areas.

Handling notifications

Regardless of which software solution listed here you choose to add, you'll need to decide whether notifications will be part of the project. Because none of the options listed above include paid monitoring services, any monitoring and response will come from whomever receives the notification that an event has taken place.

Obviously, HEYU doesn't need any notifications. Yet both Motion and ZoneMinder users may benefit from someone being kept in the loop to monitor events taking place. The most common types of notification with motion detection software for Linux include a combination of SMS and email alerts.

What I don't recommend is attaching some loud X10 alarm speaker to such a system. Reasons for avoiding this range from local laws regarding alarm licensing down to annoying anyone within ear shot of a false alarm. My suggestion of using motion detection assumes you're setting this up to better the daytime experience for everyone in the office -- not trying to create the "ultimate burglar alarm."

Why the emphasis on X10 devices?

Throughout this article, I've placed a fair amount of importance on X10 devices for use with software solutions like HEYU. This is due to the widely used nature of the X10 protocol, despite there being other up and coming alternatives. It's also considered to be an open standard.

This prevents any one company from controlling the X10 protocol exclusively. X10 is interesting in that it can use the existing electrical wiring to send data from one device to another. This ability lowers the barrier to entry for both the office and home user.

While X10 works great in the instances I've listed above, I would not suggest it as a replacement for a security system. My reasoning for recommending against X10 and motion detection software for security needs is that, like any DIY office automation setup, it's not without some bugs.

The radio protocol used by X10 is spotty at best and not very reliable, based on my testing. Therefore my recommendation is to stick with using X10 devices that enhance power consumption, as this is not a mission critical service for your workplace.

In other words, you're not going to be dealing with false alarm complaints because the lights failed to turn off on schedule. With an office security system, this might be a very different story.

Is any of this really worth it?

By now the question as to the value of all of this has to be crossing your mind. What's the point of monitoring employee activity, using Linux-powered scheduling for lighting or even bothering with zone security outside of the building?

Simple, it's a matter of encouraging productivity, better energy consumption and safety. If you have an alternative means to gain the same benefits, then by all means embrace it with both arms. My hope is to dispel the myth that this kind of technology will cost the cash-strapped businesses of today thousands of wasted dollars. The truth is, by taking the Linux approach you can avoid dangerous vendor lock-in with "potentially shady" software vendors.

For the money spent -- and assuming you can keep the labor costs down -- I think that using these ideas are financially worth it. At the very least, using HEYU will make sure that the lights have been turned off in the evening. I'd also like to point out that IP cameras and parking lot monitoring is a must have.

As for the productivity side of things, this is an area that's likely to vary depending on the existing office dynamics.

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