GE is doing it, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants it done. "It" is reducing energy usage in IT operations. While Governor Schwarzenegger would like California's state-run IT operations to reduce their energy usage by 30 percent in the next two years, GE's IT managers are already doing so. By using Windows's power management features, they're saving GE more than $2.5 million annually.

GE isn't the only one bringing good results to light. Companies such as FedEx, Dell, and Verizon have noted similar success stories. For example, FedEx is saving $1 million annually.

Annual savings such as $2.5 million and $1 million go a long way to answer the question, "Why should IT implement power management policies on workstations?" There are other benefits as well, such as saving heat stress and wear on computers and monitors. (It's a myth that you're damaging your computer by frequently turning it off and on. Modern computers are designed to handle frequent on/off cycles.) Plus, there's the environmental benefit of reducing IT's carbon footprint.

There are many ways to reduce workstations' energy consumption using the power management settings built into Windows workstations. They include:

  • Individually configuring each workstation's power management settings.
  • Using Group Policy to centrally configure power management settings. This is possible in Windows 7 and Windows Vista workstations only.
  • Using scripts with the Powercfg.exe command-line utility to centrally configure power management settings. Powercfg.exe is included with Windows XP SP2 and later.
  • Using scripts with Windows Management Instrumentation's (WMI's) power policy classes to centrally configure power management settings. These WMI classes are available in Windows 7 only.

If you manage numerous workstations, have many older workstations, or don't want to write scripts, you might consider another option: using third-party power management software. This type of software typically lets you centrally configure and manage the power management settings for numerous workstations—including those running older client OSs—without writing any scripts. Plus, they often offer additional features such as reporting capabilities, enforcing compliance, and turning off workstations without using a utility such as Shutdown.exe.

This month's buyer's guide table gives you an overview of 12 power management programs for workstations. It includes both standalone power management software and power management software that's part of a larger suite.

Before you start looking for power management software, it helps to know some basics. Windows uses a combination of keyboard, mouse, and CPU activity to determine when a computer is idle. To ascertain the amount of time since the last activity, it uses a display idle timer and system idle timer. Windows compares the length of time noted by the idle timers to the settings specified through the Control Panel Power Options applet or a power management policy or plan. When the idle time is longer than the specified settings, the computer goes into the appropriate mode.

On desktop workstations, Windows OSs have four basic power saving modes: System hibernate, System sleep (System standby in Windows XP and earlier), Turn off monitor, and Turn off hard disks. According to ENERGY STAR, fully powered desktop PCs typically use about 65 watts and monitors use from 35 watts (LCDs) to 80 watts (CRTs). In hibernate mode and sleep mode, the PC and monitor use only 1 to 3 watts each. In Turn off monitor mode, the monitor uses 1 to 3 watts. Turning off the hard disks saves little energy.

You can customize the idle settings for these modes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends setting computers to enter sleep or hibernate mode after 30 to 60 minutes of inactivity. Lower settings can lead to more energy savings. The amount of money you'll actually save depends on many other factors as well, such as the workstations' current power management settings, the amount of time the workstations are left running, the amount of time they're actively used, their rate of power consumption, and the cost of electricity. There are online energy savings calculators you can use to get a ballpark idea of the energy savings. Power management software that offers power savings reports can also give you an estimate of how much you can save.

Shutting down workstations when they're not being used for long periods of time (e.g., nonbusiness hours) can save you the most money. Most power management programs let you schedule shutdowns in addition to scheduling the sleep or hiberate mode. Various technologies are used to power up workstations from hibernation or shutdown, including Wake on LAN (WOL), Wake on WAN, and Wake on Web (powering up a workstation from a remote location using a web browser).

Power management software can offer many other features, such as:

  • Using additional metrics to determine when a computer is idle. For example, the software might analyze disk or application activity in addition to keyboard, mouse, and CPU activity.
  • Preventing PC insomnia. PC insomnia occurs when legacy applications, open file handles, faulty mice, etc., prevent the machine from going into an idle state. Thus, the power management settings never kick in.
  • Being aware of Windows Update settings.
  • Auditing to determine compliance with power management policies.
  • Blocking power management actions when certain crucial applications are running.
  • Automatically generating standard reports, such as power savings reports.

Before purchasing power management software, you should check with your power utility to see whether it offers any rebates. For example, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) offers several different efficiency programs, including a $15 rebate for every networked PC that's licensed with qualified power management software.