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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2007
Table of Contents
The End of the World
The Boar Wars
At Home in the Wild
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Lifetimes With Fire
Decoder: Endangered Species
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One Small Step
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Sierra Magazine
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Innovators: Efficiency Matters
Companies tackle high power bills--and global warming
by Reed McManus
March/April 2007

Sun Microsystems' Dave Douglas reins in the energy appetites of computer data centers.

IF IT CONSUMES ENERGY, Dave Douglas wants to know about it. Vice president of eco-responsibility for Sun Microsystems, a Silicon Valley company with $13 billion in annual revenue, Douglas oversees all of Sun's environmental efforts. That includes managing the environmental impacts of a 38,000-employee corporation and every one of the products it sells--including computer servers, which run the Web sites, networks, and databases of virtually any corporation or large organization you can imagine. No issue is too small: One of Douglas's recent blog entries fretted over the volume of greenhouse gases emitted in the manufacture and transport of the freebie briefcases he receives at environmental conferences, as well as the planetary effect of traveling to those confabs. "Are sustainability conferences sustainable?" he asked.

These days one of Douglas's bigger worries is the environmental impact of computer data centers, a.k.a. "server farms," which can comprise thousands of servers. The dirty little secret of ostensibly clean companies such as Amazon, AOL, and AT&T--the types of businesses that buy Sun's products--is that their server farms are huge energy consumers. "A large data center might use 10 megawatts of energy annually," Douglas says. "Google uses more than 100 megawatts. That's a good fraction of a coal power plant right there." According to Douglas, servers in the United States emit approximately 200 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to the yearly output of Taiwan.

It's a huge problem, and Douglas is leading efforts to address it. Last year Sun, computer-chip manufacturer AMD, and the EPA sponsored an industry-wide conference on data center efficiency. The key, Douglas says, is to push server manufacturers to agree to the same type of energy-use standards the feds have developed for personal computers, and to publicize server energy data the way the EPA labels mileage figures on new automobiles. "We need to share what we're doing and talk about our projects," Douglas says. "Customers want servers ranked by energy and performance, such as Web pages delivered per kilowatt-hour," says Jonathan Koomey, a scientist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Right now, they can't do that. Each manufacturer has its own specifications." Last December, the EPA began studying the viability of applying its Energy Star standards to servers.

Sun already publishes its own stats on energy use in its ten data centers around the world. That may be tipping its hand to the competition, but it's good business as far as Sun is concerned. And it fits with the company's growing interest in "open source" practices--providing software code and other information free of charge in hopes that others will build new products around them. (One of Douglas's inspirations, in fact, is Malcolm McLean, the former truck driver who revolutionized the worldwide cargo industry in 1956 by inventing now-ubiquitous shipping containers. Instead of holding on to his patents, McLean released his designs for free.)

Once benchmarks are in place, Douglas says, "we'll compete like crazy," an effort that will only benefit Sun's customers. These he groups into three categories. The practical ones have determined that they are running out of power or air-conditioning capacity to keep their equipment from overheating and shutting down operations. Then there are the "energy aware" customers, which realize that the cost of powering their computers will eclipse the cost of purchasing them within five to ten years. Finally, there's a small but growing group of eco-conscious customers that want to reduce their carbon footprint, like bank HSBC.

By 2015, Douglas says, servers can be four to eight times more efficient than they are today. (They're already four times more efficient than they were in 2000.) Manufacturers are taking several routes, from redesigning chips so that they use less energy to managing server farms so that they operate at top efficiency. One of Douglas's pet projects is the Blackbox, a data center that fits into one of McLean's cargo containers. Its main selling point is that it can be moved quickly to a site where additional computing power is needed, but the Blackbox is also highly energy efficient. Its equipment is designed to cool overheating machinery in a small space more efficiently than can occur in a giant warehouse.

"As far as I'm concerned, eco means both ecology and economics," Douglas says. That explains why he's just as enthusiastic about one of Sun's least technical efforts to reduce computing's environmental impacts. In 2002, the company instituted a massive telecommuting program. "If an employee is willing to give up a permanent office," Douglas says, "we purchase their home equipment and high-speed Internet service." Some 15,000 employees--46 percent of Sun's workforce--have signed on. "We've saved $65 million in office costs," he says, "and 30,000 tons of CO2 that would have been produced by commuting." Now it's on to the tough stuff--like figuring out how to make environmental conferences sustainable.

Photo by Laura Barisonzi; used with permission.

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