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
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
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
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.