Saturday Sep 06, 2008

Freecycle Economics

It took all of 24 hours for me to become a fan of freecycle. I have been moving a four by five foot plate glass mirror around my basement, cautiously leaning, bracing and sliding it so that it doesn't give me personal experience in massive sharding. Now that the bathroom originally intended to house the mirror has been re-sheetrocked and re-trimmed, I think I like my framed, replacement mirror better. As soon as decided I didn't want the remaindered construction material, I wanted to find it a home other than the bulk trash pick up. I joined the local freecycle community on Thursday night, posted an offer for the mirror on Friday and today, someone came and picked it up to hopefully put it to good use.

The bottom line is that if you make something easy and fast enough, people will do it without weighing opportunity cost versus other financial returns: While I could have sold the mirror via craigslist, it would have taken at least a week, and I would have ended up haggling over price until I could mentally justify selling it for a fraction of what it cost. Easier just to think that something of no immediate value (or worse, negative value if I moved it one too many times) is useful to someone else. Freecycling the bulk item is a good reflection on new consumer and I hope on my investment of a total of fifteen minutes. Now that I've done it once, I'm tempted to become a repeat freecycler. That's what makes barter economics work.

Thursday Sep 04, 2008

Changing Traffic Patterns

For the past 15 years, I've driven into New York City the same way: up the New Jersey Turnpike, off at Exit 16E, a stop and go skip-hop from the Turnpike tolls through the Route 3, US 1 & 9 and southbound ramp merge, and then through the Lincoln Tunnel. I park in the same garage because I'm assured of a spot and the guys there are genuinely careful with the cars. I am a severe creature of habit.

Today, for the sake of experimentation and in an attempt to get into the city in less than 90 minutes, I took a longer mileage, toll-free and more scenic route. Cut through Montclair and Upper Montclair, picked up NJ Route 3, and instead of being the merger, I was in the left lane of the mergee (?) road. What was normally a 20-30 minute jam was navigated in less than one short jam track on Burnin' For Buddy (truly a great way to endure a morning drive). I think I cut my average rush hour ride down by at least 30 minutes of pure wasted gas, wasted time, and excessive carbon footprint.

The whole difference was not being stuck in the five-to-one lane reduction that hits you coming off of the Turnpike. It's Jersey legend that gracious merging is a sign of weak driving, but that attitude is just as eco-harmful as using our beaches as giant ashtrays.

The obvious question is why I don't take the train or bus, since I live relatively near both modes of public transportation. I use my car (when required) so that I can escape before the afternoon rush, again saving time and gas, and use the time productively to make phone calls from the private and polite confines of my car. You don't want me in the same bus or train car with you when I'm on the phone, especially when the commute is worthy of a shout chorus.

Tuesday Jul 08, 2008

Raising the Roof: Sustainability Through Two Centuries

Spent a vacation weekend in Montreal (and honestly, truly did no any work for four days, including blogging, reading email, or even texting friends from work). A work de-emphasis didn't stop me from thinking about architecture and sustainability, however, and those thoughts were front and center as I toured the Basilica de Notre Dame and the Olympic Stadium.

Flying into Montreal, it's easy to pick out the 1976 Olympic venue: at 175 meters, the inclined tower is the tallest of its kind. Along with the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, it's one of the few buildings you ascend via an "inclinator" rather than a purely vertical elevator. The stadium sports a permanent cover, making it look something like a piece of Tupperware encasing something that has run afoul of your refrigerator. Original architectural plans for the Olympic venue included a retractable roof, pulled up like a magician snatching a tablecloth from under a full place setting. However, the roof wasn't finished in time for the 1976 Olympics and after several design failures that resulted in ripped, torn, and unusable stadium covers, the current lid was put in place with a vengeance. In only thirty years, the Olympic stadium suffered structural failures, lost its primary tenant (the Montreal Expos) and now sits as a stark (and tall) reminder of bad long-term design. Quebec residents still feel "sustainability" of a different sort, as tobacco taxes fund the remaining financial burden of the stadium.

Conversely, the spectacular Basilica of Notre Dame is now nearly 200 years old, has survived a fire and several reconstructions, and operates as a tourist and religious center on a daily basis. Partly, I believe the difference in long-term perspectives is due to the differences in the communities responsible for the buildings. The Basilica dates back to the founding of Montreal in the 1640s, and has had a strong community interested in its upkeep, structural integrity and long-term existence. Looking up at the ornate ceiling, completely supported by the exterior walls, I was reminded of Danny Hillis' discussion of the very long-term planning for the 14th-century era College Hall at New College at Oxford. Having a community commitment to anything, whether a building or a wiki, greatly improves the odds that thing survives in functioning form for more than a (technical) generation.

Monday May 26, 2008

Eco Business Case

Several weeks ago I was interviewed by a business school student building a case study for "eco" as a corporate imperative. What started with a line of questions aimed at highlighting the growing interest in "green" approaches to business turned quickly into a discussion of the other kind of green -- financial incentives. I don't think you'll find any company that wants to admit to being anti-green or anti-environment; but there are few companies that will actively fund and endorse "eco" as a strategy.

We (and I mean my generation, the late boomers, the current group of IT professionals) treat "eco" as a social initiative, and not as a business initiative. That's no longer possible: social, business and large-scale economic initiatives are intertwined, and companies that "get it" will gain greater acceptance in the market, have an easier time hiring new college graduates, and find that their marketing and sales efforts are amplified by the tangentially understood "social media". Put another way: the next generation of consumers -- of IT, of consumer products, of social services -- wants social action, has grown up immensely connected to their communities and the world, believes it can enact gross change, and provides instant feedback both good and bad. If a company doesn't make the link between eco as a green computing initiative and eco as a business initiative, they will sink into the Millennial equivalent of the Rust Belt.

Put another way, we fail, miserably, if we simply treat eco-computing, and eco-business, as something Carol Cone calls the ribbonization of America -- a nice cause for which we'll slap a ribbon on the back of our cars. Eco has to go beyond a corporate cause and turn into a set of actions and priorities embedded in how you think about the long-term priorities of your business. One of the best things Scott McNealy ever said to me was "Don't ask me to solve the problem, you're the engineer. Tell me what to execute because I'm an executive." Sounds trite, but it's been outstanding career advice. So here are my four actionable - executive - imperatives for dealing with eco as a business-driven, financially motivated priority.

1. Reduce demand. The most obvious one, but bound by just how much demand you can take out. Power efficiency is driven by an entire chain of transmission functions from power entering the data center to the power supply units inside of servers; moving toward more efficient distribution and conversion is a requirement.

2. Switch demand curves. If you think of power and cooling capacity demand along a classical economic supply/demand curve, eco-computing demands that you find completely different curves as well as demand-reduced points along existing curves. One approach: carefully examine where you can use tape instead of disk, trading latency for power. Tape has the eco-wonderful property of drawing zero power when it's not spinning in a drive. Another approach: look at the relationship between software and heat. Huh? Inefficient software uses more CPU cycles; increasing CPU utilization drives power consumption and demand for cooling. Yet another view: Put Moore's Law into historical context. Moore predicted the number of transistors in a processor, not the actual processor performance. How we allocate those transistors into cores, threads of execution, cache and system support functions like I/O and memory control govern the overall throughput and power efficiency of the processor. Why does Sun continu to invest in processor design? Because major refactoring of transistors in a high throughput processor creates these new demand curves.

3. Scale with sub-linear cost. Increasing delivery of IT services over the network, and rapid adoption of those services are "network scale effects." At some point, we hit a non-linear cost point in data center capacity planning where we need a new data center design or a new physical data center. What's our incremental cost of adding data center capacity? If it's a major real estate project, it tends to be measured in tens to hundreds of millions of dollars and in years, not weeks. Projects like Sun's Modular Data Center (AKA "Project Blackbox") stimulate thinking about raising capacity without building another raised floor. Being able to scale up requires a service delivery design that spans the architectural milieu from hardware layouts to load balancers and security blueprints; we've captured a set of design ideas in Sun's architectural wiki. With technology adoption increasingly driven by social mechanisms (from iPods to Twitter), companies need to identify the social drivers of growth for compute, storage and networking so that we can avoid the equivalent of an impulse function in meeting that demand.

4. Scenario plan for 10 or more years. You would never tell your investors that you don't plan to be in full operational mode a decade from now. Failure to address long-term growth and scale issues creates constraints for your successive set of business executives. The root of this scenario planning is to answer questions about who is using your products (and services) and how they'll be used (and re-used). Sun's eco-computing initiative has spurred seemingly minor product design changes that have had long-lasting impact. For example, we've removed plastic bezels and trims from our hardware products, making the systems skins fully recyclable. At a completely different abstraction level, we need to look at the encoding of corporate data, from databases to documents to intellectual property: how will it be retrieved, read, re-used and retained in five, ten or fifty years? We need interoperability across different representations today, and across future representations if we want this data to be of any use.

All four of these actions are cost driven: current operating cost, future operating cost, or cost avoidance planning. The social aspects of eco-computing make it appealing while the cost aspects make it compelling.

Thursday Apr 24, 2008

Passover as the First Eco Event

We're deep in the throes of the Jewish holiday of Passover, a celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, of freedom from slavery, and of the rebirth of spring. Capping the narrative of the Israelites' escape is the chronology of the ten plagues, a series of disasters including rivers of blood, wild beasts, hail, locusts, cattle disease and darkness. The hagaddah (the Passover man pages, if you will) we used on Sunday night referred to the plagues as a series of eco-disasters; that the ten plagues were not just relevant at a point in time 3,500 years ago but force us to re-tell the story in modern times to drive ecological consciousness. Unmitigated greenhouse gas produces darkness and eventually hail in extreme weather conditions; toxicity in the groundwater diseases animals. The idea isn't new, and there is a narrowly circulated academic journal article that puts the ten plagues in an eco-context. What's new is that Passover and Take our Daughters and Sons to Work Day intersect on this year's calendar, and the theme of bringing our children into the workplace this year is "Making Choices for a Better World."

It's a bit difficult to explain to school aged kids who you do if you're a systems engineer. At various times, I've asked kids to name things with computers in them, going through the non-obvious ones like cars, cell phones, and cable boxes, explaining that all of those devices are more useful when they're getting data, and that's the kind of problem that we solve. At other events, I have asserted that online shopping is made possible through your friend the remainder, and suddenly fifth grade math and long division seem more real-world relevant (Only once did I take a detour into the Chinese Remainder Theorem, but that was to prove that some of these ideas are really old. Like older than the scary school nurse old -- sorry, Mom).

It's much easier to explain what systems engineers do in the context of social networking, content (including Moodle) sites, and network-delivered services. My concern is to tie the eco-theme into these discussions in a meaningful way for our kids - so that they think about the long-term consequences of how their personal data is handled, of how they store (and where they store) pictures, text, and meta data, and how the Internet really is the infamous "permanent record" that our principals warned us about. Cory Doctorow's equating personal data and toxic waste is accurate. It's up to us to tell the story, annually, to our kids so they can put a contemporary spin on potential eco-disasters, even those reflected in Biblical terms and proportions. That's the point of bringing our kids to work, just as it's the point of re-telling the Passover story each year.

Monday Feb 18, 2008

Innovation versus Regulation

Growing up in a reform Jewish synagogue, we always had a somewhat tangential relationship to the more traditional Jewish organizations and agencies; our rabbi had a pony tail (in 1970) rather than a long beard. One religious artifact that stuck with me was that each year, we'd give small amounts of money (tzedekah, Hebrew for "righteousness" rather than "charity") to buy "trees for Israel" through the Jewish National Fund. The JNF is dedicated to building out infrastructure and the long-term development of natural resources. It's not a conservation fund; it's about adopting a multiple decade view for a part of the world that has a history measured in millennia.

What got me thinking about the JNF and my grade school pile of tree certificates was a comment made by Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn at the annual nerd dinner that's part of our Analyst Summit. When asked why Virgin felt they'd be able to develop economically viable spaceflight, Whitehorn simply stated that private enterprise almost always outperforms government mandates. As a research or development area becomes more institutionalized, rules and regulations stagnate work. Whitehorn's point was that if you wait for regulation or oversight, work is reduced to meeting the letter of the law, instead of innovating to drive the spirit or intent of its creation. Whitehorn was implicitly dismissing NASA and other government-funded agencies who have "missions" but not economic development goals. Building on materials research and manufacturing interests outside of the Virgin empire, Galactic is going to build a spacecraft and then drive its economics through both supply and demand sides of the equation.

At the Analyst Summit, a number of people asked me about the motivations for Sun's eco-computing initiatives. It's not purely about the environmental aspects -- those are adjunct benefits, like having an old growth forest cultivated from the pocket change of school children. It's about driving real innovation and change in the development of our computing infrastructure, before government regulation establishes rules and boundaries that reduce the problem to an exercise in compliance. If we, as technology producers and consumers, choose to truly innovate in both the supply and demand sides of the computing equation, it means investment in reducing our net demand for power, space and cooling while allowing computing infrastructure to scale. Failure to do so means that rate limiting factors in data center scale -- those stemming from energy and space constraints -- will be the subject of government regulation.

Sun's eco-initiatives are centered on the costs of computing, but they're not limited to the silicon domain. The intersection of space flight and thinking about forests stemmed from a comment made by Dave Douglas in his SAS breakout: When Sun produced its annual report online, and skipped production of the glossy paper version, more than 99 million sheets of paper were conserved. That's the equivalent of 11,000 trees, or a small forest in any locale. Securities regulations dictate that we produce an annual report; innovation in how we deliver it to shareholders, potential investors and government agencies lets us challenge long-term views of the infrastructure required. It's seeing the forest through the regulatory trees.

Friday Jan 18, 2008

Choosing Your Demand Curve

As a high school student, I never really thought about energy all that much (I didn't drive and therefore didn't pay for gas) until late one Saturday night when I saw a commercial for Pink Floyd's Animals, featuring the now culturally relevant the stacks of the Battersea Power Station. The commercial literally raised the hair on the back of my neck, as it's hard to see what's floating between the smokestacks until the images resolves to reveal a pig, floating between the stacks, looking into the frame, not out at the audience. OK, it was freaky at the time, but maybe I had just read too much Heinlein. Listening to the album not too long after, the reference made sense: big power (corporate or generated) meant big pigs, with a healthy dose of George Orwell thrown in for good measure. I hadn't given the Battersea power plant or Floyd's pig much thought until I watched Children of Men recently, and laughed when I saw the floating pig in the background, framed by Battersea, another reference to animalistic behavior in the movie.

I'm relying on ancient history to make up for failing to plug (no pun) some recent history in Innovating@Sun podcasts that indirectly address questions of supply, demand, and piggish capitalism. I started by joining Eco-Computing VP Dave Douglas to talk about the disruptive effects of eco-computing -- primarily from a financial, not a cultural perspective. Dave sees eco-computing driven by cost savings, not a desire to be friendlier to the environment or a more responsible corporation. Those are indeed honorable and solid goals, but if you want to get traction talking about a new IT initiative, it has to change supply and demand curves modulated by the guys who build data centers. That's the economic disruption driven by eco-computing: focus on reducing demand for power, space and cooling. Normally systems vendors are predisposed to look at the supply curve, and either drive prices for infrastructure down or increase performance (or both), two effects that tend to move to a different point on the demand curve where overall consumption is increased. If you assume there's elasticity in demand for IT (and I've yet to find a customer that believed it had sufficient IT resources for every project, every year), then some rough rules of supply and demand apply, with each new product cycle shifting the supply curve a bit.

The problem with approaching eco-computing from the supply-side is that you never drive a disruption in demand. Dave Douglas makes a very strong argument for for carbon offsets; Dave wants us to look for ways to use less energy (and therefore create fewer carbon emissions to offset) in the aggregate. True disruption in the market comes from sliding onto a completely different demand curve, leading to a major shift in aggregate demand or in the price of goods. Long tail, open source, cultural icon status: all pick up demand curves and move them.

I first started thinking about IT and economic theories when we recorded the Innovating@Sun podcast about the Niagara 2 processor. Moore's Law is often equated to an expression of computing power, but more accurately it defines the number of transistors that can be delivered in a processor over time. VLSI design teams can use those transistors for memory, threads, network acceleration, multi-core implementations, or any other arrangement to satisfy the demand barbarians at the gates (Wall Street, not Microsoft pun intended). As the most typical distribution of transistors aims for higher clock rates and better single thread performance, you get more power consumption and more heat dissipation. The multi-thread, multi-core design of Niagara 2, along with the partitioning of gates for system elements, yields a completely different demand curve, one with radically lower heat production and power consumption. It's eco-computing from the processor level looking up, rather than the application and storage level looking down. In either direction, it forces us to reconsider how we build applications to take advantage of these new relationships between the total cost of computing and computing performance.

Two years ago, more than half of my customer conversations around CMT and the Niagara processor included the phrase "but we don't develop parallelized applications." In that time, nearly every processor house has announced or delivered multi-core and/or multi-threaded chips, so that Niagara is no longer the exception but the rule. Today, those same discussions focus on how customers can take advantage of multi-threading so that they can manage their aggregate IT demand in terms of the future platform supply.

Friday Sep 21, 2007

Energy versus Code

On Tuesday I attended the roundtables and discussions surrounding the Department of Energy's MOU to join the Green Grid. It's great to see a government agency with a department of efficiency, and even more important is that having the DOE on stage drags eco-computing front and center as a national policy issue as well.

Among the dominant themes was that of high voltage power distribution, comparing high voltage AC and DC and the potential energy savings of each. There's a study that Sun and Lawrence Berkeley Labs conducted to examine DC power distribution in the data center, and the first order estimates are that it could save 5-7% over AC. That seems significant, until you put together a pareto of other energy savings ideas. What's lost is lost -- whether it's in the conversion of AC to DC or in spinning disks to manage data that could be migrated to tape or running inefficient code.

The last point is one that was touched by both DOE Assistant Secretary for Efficiency Alexadner Karsner and the New York Stock Exchange's CTO, Steve Rubinow. Rubinow commented that we've come to take "cheap processors and memory" as an excuse to get messier with code, and as a result, we have inefficient applications consuming power on gross scales. Karsner was more direct: "The most available, cheap source of energy is that which we waste".

As we've seen with other environmental and ecological initiatives, real savings come from both reduction in demand as well as efficiencies gained in production and distribution. Managing demand is independent of supply voltages, and can be kicked-off with software tools like the Sun Studio Performance Analyzer as well as systemic inspection offered through Dtrace. Back in the 70s, Tower of Power preached that "There's Only So Much Oil in the Ground." While we've improved discovery, production and distribution of fossil fuels, it's been conservation efforts and efficiencies that extended the lifespan of dead dinosaurs.

Thursday Jul 26, 2007


Much of this week has been spent in a variety of VP-level meetings discussing Sun's FY08 strategies and initiatives. The top of the list is growth, in terms of new application areas and infrastructure wins as well as design patterns for the "next" data center. Top of that list is power, cooling, and virtualization, creating a denser and more flexible computing fabric. It's possible to grow our business (through new data center designs) while also being eco-friendly (through more efficient servers, better systems design, and macro-level packaging like Project BlackBox).

One of my favorite "tell it like it is" customers put it rather succinctly for me: He virtualized two dozen servers down to four. With site licenses for all of the software needed, his software costs didn't change. He's running the same number of OS instances, so systems administration, networking and other per-image costs remained flat. But the four new servers are consuming more power than the twenty old ones, and he's wondering where the savings went (aside from a smaller physical footprint). Eco-computing involves looking at the whole stack, from the processor up to the administrator, because each of those levels contribute to the operational cost.

So this is my first new blog category since splitting off the hockey ramblings into a world of their own. I expect eco-friendly, eco-computing, eco-logical, eco-nomic and if I'm truly random, Umberto Eco to make appearances.

Eco Stickers and Andre the Giant

My recent trip to Grenoble, France had Andre the Giant on my mind (figuratively, of course). The linkage wasn't due to Andre's origins in the Alpine region, instead, it was a gentle reminder that Andre the Giant has a posse, as evidenced by de facto street art in the form of stickers on buildings, signs, and the occasional NJ Turnpike toll booth. While in Grenoble, I was talking about social networking, memes, and how ideas spread through culture electronically and physically, and the shout out to Shep Fairey seemed obvious. After various wrangling over the use of Andre the Giant's name, Fairey generated the propaganda style Obey Giant stickers. A social movement without a cause, and a healthy brand to boot (You can pick up a book of Shep Fairey's street art at the appropriately themed Urban Outfitters).

All of this professional wrestling and pop art culture flotsam were swirling around in a half-written blog entry until I saw my first guerilla-marketing, eco-friendly meme in the men's room at Nola in Palo Alto. This appears to be a beta release of the sticker available at the These Come From Trees blog. A bit of civil disobedience combined with a healthy respect for the environment. The current version of the sticker is decidedly more eye-catching at first glance, and likely to at least cause a pause if not a healthy non-action toward paper products. It's a union of the two best idea vectors around: green thinking and bathroom humor.

It's this kind of in-your-face, inopportune moment art that makes people consider the second and third order effects of their actions. What better way to change consumption than at the point of consumption? Marketing has warned me that putting up pictures of cute and cuddly Antarctic creatures with the slogan "Processors or Penguins: You Decide" is a bit too obscure in terms of energy usage and its effects on global warming, but you get the idea.


Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management


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