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Greening a Company from the Break Room to the Server Farms

In the world that's taking shape around the green business boom, data storage companies are finding themselves in an interesting position. The services they provide have a huge environmental impact -- the technology research group Gartner estimated recently that IT accounts for 2 percent of the world's CO2 emissions, an impact as high as aviation. But technology is also hailed as a potential solution to all kinds of environmental crises.

As a result, IT companies find themselves needing to address not only their own operations -- a considerable challenge faced by companies in all sectors -- but also playing a significant role in helping their customers get green as well.

I recently sat down with John Engates, the CTO of web hosting company Rackspace, to talk about how his company is addressing not only its own impact and those of its clients, but a third group: its employees.

Matthew Wheeland: This summer, Rackspace unveiled their GreenSpace initiative in the U.S. Can you tell me a little bit about what that consists of?

John Engates: Sure. GreenSpace is an umbrella for all the initiatives that we are working on to help with you know, sort of the advancement of energy efficiency at Rackspace.

A year ago or so, our U.K. office launched a program where they planted a tree for every server that went online in our U.K. data center. And we had an overwhelming response to that from our customer base. They really thought that was cool; they thought it was a good way for them to make a difference with their business and how they were consuming IT services.

And that ended up sparking a lot of activity here in the U.S. Our U.S. office decided that there were things that we were already doing and some things that we needed to be doing. That they wanted to pull together in an initiative and we called it GreenSpace.

And GreenSpace is really, it's a three-pronged approach or we think of it that way. It's really about Rackspace at a corporate level, the Rackspace employees and then the customers of Rackspace and how we can really work on green initiatives in those three categories.

So from a corporate perspective, Rackspace is spending time thinking about how we can do better in terms of efficiency in the data centers. We run eight data centers around the globe with approximately 35,000 servers in those data centers. And so every one of those servers is like a little toaster. It just throws off heat and it also takes a lot of power. And so every one of those, if we could reduce the energy used or the amount of energy we have to use to cool it; or change the energy source in some way, we can have a positive impact on the environment.

So the things we're doing there are looking at more environmentally friendly servers and better ways of designing the data center to be more efficient from a cooling perspective and then also looking for alternative sources of fuel and power. So that would be -- for example, in our U.K. data center, one of the new ones is actually using a biofuel as the power source from the utility company in our Slough data center in the U.K.

So that's part of it. Obviously what we're doing at a corporate level. And also from an employee perspective, we had a big full day of activities and events centered around awareness of green programs and green living activities that could be done in the San Antonio area where our headquarters is located.

We brought out a bunch of vendors who have green products like a dry cleaner who offers green dry cleaning services. We had a company that provides electric powered cars; hybrid vehicles here that people could try out. We had the local utility company spend some time with us explaining how we could have an impact on the energy efficiency of our own homes.

So that really is awareness for over 2,000 employees here at Rackspace and that was important to us -- we can make a difference right here at home.

The other prong of the three prongs in our GreenSpace initiative is how we can help the customers be more green with their businesses. And again, the primary service that we offer is hosting servers for the customers and we wanted to do some work there to see how we could offset the carbon emissions that were being given off by those servers.

And similarly to the U.K. office, which did the tree planting, we decided to do a carbon offset program. We partnered with a company called the Native Energy Group. They are a group that allows companies like Rackspace to buy carbon offsets or contribute to programs that would provide green energy. Things like wind farms or methane programs, where we could really recapture some of the methane from a farm that's actually in Pennsylvania.

So the idea there is just whatever we're doing, whatever we're putting into the data center, if we can't make it 100 percent green, then we should at least look for ways to contribute back to other more green sources of energy.

MW: I definitely want to come back to the greening of the data center itself. But it was interesting to me to hear about the Green Day and how you weren't just talking about what employees could do in the office; but what they can do throughout their lives. What has the response been from your employees?

JE: Well, the response has been very positive. And I guess the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. But one of the things that I've seen around here just since we've done the Green Day is I've seen signs go up around the office that say turn out your lights. I've seen recycling programs that have sprung up within the groups at the grass roots level, I guess. We have, again, 2000 employees and I think it's better when those types of things happen from within the teams than when they feel like they are corporate initiatives being pushed down on people. It really has a much more positive response when people do it themselves.

Obviously, we sponsored the Green Day event but then, a lot of employees took it upon themselves to do what they felt made sense in their area or their part of the company.

So I think it's been a very positive response. And not only what they can do from recycling and energy conservation, but also where they could save and conserve within the company as well. It's not just at home but it's also around here. We have a lot of packaging that comes wrapped around servers; a lot of boxes, a lot of cardboard and Styrofoam. And one of the things that I heard at a meeting not too long after that Green Day event was one of our server engineers talking to our representative from one of our hardware manufacturers and they were actually talking about how they could package more servers into one physical box and thereby save some of the packing materials and some of the cardboard and cut down on a lot of the waste.

And I just think that those kinds of things are inevitable when you shine a spotlight on the green initiatives and make the employees aware that the company values that kind of thinking.

MW: Great. And it sounded to me like sort of the U.K. office spurred this initiative a little bit. Was there -- how did it come about in the U.S.? Is GreenSpace focused entirely on the U.S. operations or is it going to spread to the U.K. more? Is it coming more from the U.K. to begin with?

JE: Well, it came from the U.K. and I'll tell you why it's -- and honestly it's because Europe and the U.K. are ahead of the U.S. from a green perspective. I mean, I don't think there's any argument there from anybody. But they are certainly more attuned to the environment and the issues surrounding it and the global climate change problems that are going on.

And so there's no wonder, really, that they were a little bit ahead of us. They were hearing it from their customers first and they felt like it was time to do something about it. And what happened here was that we figured out that it really is a global problem; it's not something that you can solve in one area or one place. And so we wanted to bring those initiatives to the U.S.

At the time when the U.K. did it, it wasn't a company-wide initiative. It was sort of a local initiative and now we've figured out that we need to do it everywhere. We want to do it. We've shined a spotlight on it and it makes sense.

And so, the GreenSpace initiative is really now the global umbrella for all of the initiatives that we're working on; whether they're in the U.K., the U.S. or beyond. I mean, we have plans for data centers beyond just the two continents that we're on now. And so as we move ahead and into the regions of the world, we will certainly pay a lot more attention to it than we probably did five or seven years ago when we first started all this.

MW: It sounds in some ways like a story I hear a lot: how IT managers are trying to convince the C-Suite, for instance, to instal energy efficient servers and doing whatever they can to reduce energy use, reduce environmental impact. And in some ways, I think that's even more relevant to you and in some ways, it's like any other company.

What were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome with this project?

JE: Well, some of the obstacles -- I mean, immediately, you have to jump to the obstacle of money. Whenever you think about programs like this, you have to ask the question is it worth it? Does it make sense from a business perspective? I mean, we still are in business and so anything that we do like this has to make some sense from a business perspective.

And because the customers were asking for it, there were certainly some signs that it would be a good thing to do just surely from a pure business perspective. But it also has the possibility to significantly reduce the amount of power that we put into the data centers and therefore lower the costs of running those data centers. It also has the potential to allow us to put off building new data centers down the road. If we can put more energy efficient servers in that produce less heat, we can probably pack more of them into the same existing data centers and therefore, put off by either months or years the opportunity or the requirement to have to build the next data center.

And I think the barriers are just that the question is can we make it work from a financial perspective? I mean, that's ultimately what it was. And I think some things that we can do we have to take it a step at a time. We have to take -- bite this thing off a piece at a time. And the things that we've done so far may be little in scale or scope. They're not like they're making dramatic changes to the way we do business today. But I think over time, having a spotlight on these types of things and paying attention to it is really what's going to allow us to make the shift.

MW: And tell me a little bit about how this initiative is changing your data centers? Are you installing more efficient machines? Are you reorganizing the way they are set up or how they're heated and cooled?

JE: Yeah, so both of those things. Not too long ago, a couple of weeks ago, it's probably longer than that. My timeline is off. But I think we had a full day off-site session with a bunch of the Rackspace engineers and many of our vendors and we spent some time talking through exactly what you're talking about; what's the next generation data center going to look like from an equipment perspective and from a design perspective.

And we're doing a lot of work on the build-outs of these new facilities in terms of the design and the architecture. How can they be more green facilities? How can they be more efficient facilities? There's a lot of research being done in terms of rearchitecting and redesigning the data centers and getting better metrics around the data centers.

One of the groups that we joined is called the Green Grid and the Green Grid is a group of vendors and people like Rackspace who are big users of IT technology. And they're spending time sort of figuring out the metrics that we should be measuring data centers based on. How green is green? And how much progress have we made? Those are hard things to answer right now and I think there's work being done there. So what we really need to do is figure out the right metrics and then track ourselves over time to use better technology.

One of the other pieces of technology that's changed recently is the move from single core to multi-core processors. We've just recently launched some of the AMD processors that are greener than their predecessors. And staying on the cutting edge with new technology to use less power and fewer resources is probably the right thing to do both from a cost perspective and from an environmental perspective. So there's really no reason to not do some of those things.

MW: And what are you doing with the older, less energy efficient machines that you're replacing with these newer cutting edge technologies?

JE: Some of them are recycled here at Rackspace and reused. So we can't necessarily get rid of them immediately. If they still have useful life, we continue to use them. And again, that probably makes good sense. Even if they do use a little bit more energy, it's better to use more energy than to manufacture a new server. There's probably more energy used in the manufacturing process and the shipping and all that. If we can reuse it, we should.

But after the useful life is really done on those servers, they are pretty much scrapped. We don't really use them for anything after their useful life. And we dispose of those through various, I guess, scrap recovery type operations that basically buy the equipment for us and then they will recycle a lot of the components off the boards and things like that.

So there is sort of a life cycle to all of the technology. We use it as long as we can and then once it's done, we dispose of it through the proper channels.

MW: How do you define success? Have you set any concrete goals? What does a successful green initiative look like to you?

JE: I think for us, I think the success in the long run would be to maintain or reduce the amount of energy that goes into our product. Our product is IT service and if we could maintain the same levels while continuing to add customers or at least reduce the amount on a per customer/per server basis, that would be success. That's never been the case as long as I've been in IT. It's always gotten more power hungry or more energy consuming; the chips run hotter, the memory takes more energy to run.

And so I think if it starts to go the other direction, that would be success. And in aggregate, that would mean Rackspace pays a lower energy bill over time or at least maintains that. And I think that would be success.

MW: Okay.

JE: I would like to know, on a more granular level using some of the new metrics and measurement tactics that I guess the Green Grid's coming up with, how we're doing in the industry as a whole. That's very hard to determine today. There's so many different companies doing IT services and there's companies doing it in-house and there are data centers that are co-location facilities.

Every different facility is really designed differently and designed for different purposes and it's not an apples to apples comparison. And I would like to see a little bit better way of determining if we are really doing the right things and if we're green. At this point, we're really benchmarking ourselves against ourselves over time. And that's not the end goal. Our goal would be to see how we're doing overall against the whole industry.

MW: In thinking about the renewable energy data center in the U.K., how does this play out in the U.S.? What do you see in the future? What's this going to look like in five years? Obviously our infrastructure for renewables is a lot more limited than they have in Europe and the U.K. So what do you see coming down the pike?

JE: Well, I think that as this issue really becomes front and center for more and more people, that they will put pressure on their vendors and their partners to look for greener alternatives for whatever they might be doing.

So for example, in our industry, we did a survey to our customer base and we tried to figure out how many of them really were thinking about this? How many would pay either more money for greener technology or how many would be willing to sacrifice some performance for a lower carbon emission solution or really, what was on their minds?

And we found that 52 percent of the people we got responses from would actually pay more to work with a green vendor. And that was pretty encouraging. It was telling me that they wanted us to do more. That the people that are saying yes, they'd pay more and obviously they want us to pay attention to it, they want us to do more with it. 59 percent of the people actually said that green vendors are important to them but not necessarily a part of their business strategy yet which means to me that over time, that will probably change.

It sounds like it's on the personal level, it's important to people. It hasn't made the jump yet to the business level and I think that will gradually change over time. And as it does, I think that will push vendors like Rackspace and others to being more and more green.

We see that already to some extent with the manufacturers of server processors. So Intel and AMD have been pressed and pushed to be more energy efficient with their processors because they're using more and more energy and it's heating up the data centers. It's forcing companies and people like Rackspace to go out and build new facilities, new data centers. And that's really not the right direction. We want to go the other direction if we could. We should be getting more out of those processors; it's not just a speed or a computing power issue. It's also a power issue from an energy perspective.

And so they're doing a lot of work and I think that pressure is really on now. The competition's there between Intel and AMD and we're starting to see the benefits of that. The processors are more energy efficient than they have been in a long time. And they're using newer techniques to manufacture those. And I think they're making a difference.

So as that starts to permeate the rest of the industry as a whole, I think we'll see a positive change.

MW: And I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. What are some of the benefits that you've seen so far within Rackspace from this green initiative?

JE: Well, I think some of the benefits that we've seen are changes that we're doing when we build a new data center, we want to build it with the latest technology. We've looked at more efficient power supplies. We've looked at more efficient air conditioning units; how to architect the data center to be more efficient.

And so putting awareness in place puts everybody in a mode of thinking how can we reduce? How can we save? How can we economize on the design and the deployment of these new servers? When something comes out that might have a positive impact on our efficiency, it makes it way into our labs much more quickly if people are paying attention to it. And then we test it, we see if it has the impact that we hope for and like these AMD processors, we actually rolled those out as soon as they were available on the market.

And so I don't think that would have happened had we really not shined a spotlight on the green energy programs that we have in place. If we hadn't been paying attention, I don't' think that stuff would have happened quite as quickly.

And the impact really is to the bottom line. It helps us save energy. Helps our customers with more efficient solutions; more cost-effective solutions. When we don't spend as much on power, that translates into a lower price point for our customers. And then overall, I think it actually does help us even from a PR perspective. There are a lot of people who want to deal with a green vendor. If they know that the vendor is doing some work, that they will actually spend their dollars with that vendor and we've seen that play out even within our sales department where some of the prospects are just asking about the programs and if they're asking about it, that obviously means it's on their mind and they're interested in having us do more and more in that area.

MW: And that brings me back to the survey you mentioned a minute ago which is that people said they'd be willing to pay more for a green service. What are they hoping to benefit from this? They are obviously not paying out of pocket for these more energy efficient servers, so is it purely they want to green their company and this is one step? Is it purely PR?

JE: Well, I think there's a little bit of everything in that motivation. I mean, you mentioned that they're not paying out of pocket. Well, in some ways they are because if we can get more energy efficient, sometimes that does actually reduce the amount of power. Now, sometimes, it doesn't offset the cost of the new technology. But that's always going to be sort of a hit or miss. Sometimes the technology makes such a leap that it might actually cost less to install a new, more energy efficient server than it would to pay for the power bill. And those are questions you have to take on a case by case basis.

But from a PR perspective, I think there are companies that want to demonstrate to their constituents, their customers, whomever, that they are making changes that would lead to a greener environment. They don't want to be the bad guys in the world of IT or whatever business they might be in.

Some people, they actually say they strongly believe in protecting the environment. That was one of the questions we actually asked is why have you chosen to go green? 63 percent strongly believed in protecting the environment. Another big category was that their customers were asking for it and it made good sense. That was 9 percent people actually responded that way. Another group said regulatory reasons today or in the future were going to be driving them to it.

So I think there are various reasons for people to start thinking about this. Some of them are being proactive in just thinking about how can I get ahead of this problem and start to work on it now? Eventually, we'll all pay for it somehow and I think there are some early adopters who just believe in it and think it's the right thing to do.

Matthew Wheeland is the Managing Editor at Greener World Media. This interview originally appeared on GreenBiz Radio. Ethernet plug photo copyleft MysteryBee.

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