Sun Microsystems Banks on Energy Efficiency
When times were good in the dot-com era, they were very good for Sun Microsystems. The fast-paced, venture capital-fueled companies were building out data centers and filling them chock full of Sun's expensive, high-end Web servers.
But the days were numbered, and when venture capital ran out, many of Sun's customers folded. The company's stock tumbled steadily from pinnacle prices of well over $100 to today, where shares have been trading steadily at about $4. Now, the company is gearing up to stage a comeback, and CEO Scott McNealy says the key is the company's new Eco-Responsibility Initiative.
Sun’s Eco-Responsibility Initiative is comprised of three main strategies: improving the efficiency of server technology, driving a shift from personal computers to networked displays called "thin clients," and emphasizing reduced resource use in its own operations.
"First and foremost, we believe that energy, space and innovation matter," said Ed Hunter, a senior technical advisor for Sun.
Although a key new product, the Sun Fire T1000 server, headlines the initiative, Hunter readily admits the Eco-Responsibility Initiative ties together a lot of products and services Sun has already introduced.
"The development of Eco-Responsible products is a logical extension of Sun’s current design philosophy," Hunter said.
That may be the case, but the timing appears right, too.
With oil prices high, it makes economic sense, McNealy said at an event launching the Eco-Responsibility Initiative. "People wonder, What are you up here for? What are you doing?," he said. "Well, we're here to make money. Understand that. But we think we can do that in a way that pays off not only for our shareholders but for everybody on the planet.… So we want to talk about that."
Getting technology users to talk about energy hasn’t been hard.
Sun’s strategy taps into many IT managers concerns about energy use, data center design and spiraling energy costs.
“In the year 2000 you had these claims about all the equipment electricity uses: the Internet uses 8% of all electricity, that all office equipment used 13% and it was going to grow to half of all electricity usage in ten years,” said Jonathon Koomey, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories.
Although occasionally repeated in the media, the claims have now been discredited, in part due to research done by Koomey. But that doesn’t mean Sun’s strategy is playing off empty fears.
Faster processors take more power — and more power makes the machines hotter, which requires more cooling for buildings where servers are housed. Because of the energy required to power servers and cooling units, data centers today can use 50 to 60 watts per square foot, compared with 5 to 8 watts per square foot in the average office building, Koomey said. Individual companies are feeling the pinch of higher energy prices and looking to make cuts in consumption.
Sun’s marquee products for the Eco-Responsibility Initiative are the Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 servers. Both models use a processor, nicknamed Niagara, that reportedly uses just 56 watts of power — less than a standard light bulb, and just half that of Intel’s competing Xeon processor, according to Sun.
“That’s in part why Sun is doing this,” Koomey said. “The people who are their customers will benefit.”
Niagara servers also have a “wow” factor Sun believes will lure new buyers. Using what’s called “multithreaded” design, Niagara can perform as many as 32 separate tasks at a time. By comparison, Intel’s competing processor can only handle four tasks at one time. What remains to be seen is whether Niagara can perform the tasks as quickly, critics say.
To the uninitiated, it may sound like a bunch of boring tech talk, but the market is listening — and it seems optimistic. In early December, Sun announced that eBay’s (Nasdaq: EBAY) PayPal division is piloting the servers, and there are substantial rumors that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is set to purchase Niagara-based servers as well.
If Niagara takes off the way Sun hopes, the environmental impact could be substantial, Hunter said. “We're talking about saving considerable amounts of power,” he said.
Hunter said if half of the entry servers (those priced under $100,000) sold in the last three years were replaced with the Niagara processors, “over 11 million tons of CO2 emissions, or the equivalent of that emitted by about 1 million SUVs, would be eliminated each year.”
But Sun’s not alone in the energy-efficiency game. Most of the major manufacturers, as well as new competitors such as Santa Clara-based P.A. Semi, have zeroed in on energy-efficiency in both processors and servers.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) technical committee on mission control facilities, technology spaces and electronic equipment in January released a guidebook on design considerations for data centers.
“The datacom industry is faced with tough technical challenges such as high-density cooling and the lack of vendor neutral material,” Don Beaty, chair of the ASHRAE committee, said in a press release.
As national data centers work to slash energy use and costs, Sun is attempting to position itself as a credible voice. The company hosted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Jan. 31 conference on enterprise servers and data centers at its Santa Clara conference facility.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and the Rocky Mountain Institute have also undertaken projects with industry partners to help minimize data center energy use through design innovations.
This article has been reprinted courtesy of nw current, a publication of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. It was first published in February 2006.
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