Add Scott McNealy to GE's Jeff Immelt among business leaders trying to turn sustainability into a big business opportunity.
With great fanfare, McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, announced on Monday the introduction of a new energy-efficient processor that will debut in a new line of servers by the end of the year. The company is calling the chip "the world's first Eco-responsible processor." Its research shows that its UltraSPARC T1 processor "could eliminate the number of Web servers in the world by half, slashing power requirements and having the same effect in reducing carbon dioxide emissions as planting one million acres of trees."
This is no small matter. While a great deal of focus has been on reducing the energy use of consumer electronics, such as PCs and TVs, far less has gone into the energy impacts of server farms -- facilities housing massive computing storage and routing wizardry used by Google, eBay, Yahoo, and just about any other Web site that maintains a database, performs e-commerce, or facilitates e-mail, Internet telephony, music streaming, and all the rest. Server farms require energy to operate all that electronic equipment, and gobs more to keep the equipment cool. A typical data center can consume nearly 4,000 watts per square foot -- roughly 15 times what they consumed in the early 1990s, and more than half the power required by many homes, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
I couldn't find any reliable data about the aggregate energy used by today's server farms, let alone projections for the rapidly scaling future, but the load for an individual farm can be significant -- and costly. Here's a flavor, culled from a 2001 C|net article: When U.S. Dataport, a company in San Jose, Calif., planned a $1.2 billion server farm "that would be the world's largest data center," it called for "10 huge air-conditioned warehouses on 174 acres that would constantly draw 180 megawatts of electricity -- about enough to provide energy for all the homes in a city the size of Honolulu."
The major server manufacturers -- Sun, HP, IBM, Dell, and others -- have been vying to improve server energy efficiency for years; the 2000-2001 energy crisis in California, where roughly one in five servers lives, was a giant impetus. But Sun seems to have ratcheted up the competition a notch or two.
I won't claim to be able to parse such marketing tech-talk as "With up to 32 simultaneous threads in one incredibly low-power, low-heat processor, you gain the high-volume throughput you need, while saving millions on power and cooling costs." But some of those present at Monday's Sun event were able to help add credence to Sun's pronouncements. One of those was Amory Lovins, CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute, which in 2003 convened an innovative whole-system design charrette "to challenge the current model for data centers and develop a groundbreaking data center design -- a clean-sheet model with no compromises." The result was a data center design concept "that reduces energy demand by an order of magnitude (89 percent) compared to today's standard designs, while providing equivalent computing power and greater reliability," according to the RMI site.
Like GE, which through its ecomagination campaign has harnessed sustainability as a key sales and marketing strategy, Sun sees its energy-sipping chips as part of a larger strategy that can drive sales and revenue. Sun's strategy involves all but eliminating the PC altogether.
McNealy has long been championing Sun's "thin-client" strategy, in which individuals log on to a server that contains, in effect, their desktop, including all of their programs and documents, just the way they left them. That strategy -- McNealy calls it DOIP, for "Desktop Over Internet Protocol," eliminates much of individual computers' innards -- hard drives, memory chips, fans, and more. (Thereby eliminating, as McNealy puts it, "a personal space heater on everybody's lap or workspace.") And it means not having to upgrade your hardware every time Microsoft (or whomever) introduces a radical new operating system or software suite; the latest version lives in the server. It also facilitates "commute-free remote access work environments for employees," enabling employees to work from anywhere, thereby eliminating office space (about half of Sun's employees don't work from company offices). That saves even more energy and improves worker productivity.
It's a great strategy that, for sustainability buffs, approaches the goal of radical resource productivity -- one of the four tenets of "natural capitalism" described by Lovins, et al., in their book of the same name:
Increasing resource productivity means getting more product out of each ton of natural material extracted. Changes in technology can create ways to stretch natural resources 5, 10, even 100 times further than they do today. And these resources savings can easily save money and increase profits.
Natural Capitalism also talks about the "service and flow" economy, which also seems to synch with Sun's thin-client vision.
In a solutions-based business model, the producer maintains ownership of goods produced, which encourages "take back" when the productive life is over, remanufacturing and recycling. This requires different expectations for both customers and producers, and fundamentally shifts the relationship between the two. Thus, basic economic arrangements support closed loop production and consumption models.
Make no mistake. Sun Microsystems is a long way from being a model of natural capitalism, or even a wholly sustainable business. But I like their thinking. And they offer another example of a large company seeing the profits to be made from making its customers more efficient while reducing their environmental footprint -- and saving them money along the way.