Innovation versus Regulation
By stern on Feb 18, 2008
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.