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Sustainable Innovation 06: Sun's Green Computing
Dawn Danby, 1 Nov 06
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Sustainable innovation needs information, and information needs computing. David Douglas, VP of Eco-responsibility at Sun Microsystems, reminds us at Sustainable Innovation 06 that virtually nothing we were discussing, from new design and utility grids to carbon trading and climate modeling, were done without the aid of computing power. 300 million computers are already obsolete, brimming with over 700 esoteric compounds - "a lot of wild stuff goes into them".

The US also still uses 90 billion Kilowatt-hours a year in data centers, which cause between 100 and 200 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year. This is a slice of what amounts to more like a billion tonnes of CO2 a year, globally. This impact is partly caused by burning coal - and partly it's a result of enormous inefficiencies. David, who talks energetically and with a permanent smile, sees a huge energy and carbon emission savings lying around in companies. In his opinion, the first set of savings are relatively easy, just waiting around to be picked up. Computers today use between 0.1% and 0.3% of their energy for "thinking", while the rest goes to spin disks and fans. More than 99% goes into heat from simple waste. "That's a picture of how your Google search gets powered today," said David. This heat also requires air conditioning to cool, which is more energy; architects frequently forget to take into account the 150-watt space heater sitting on every desk. (We've talked before about trends in greener computing.)

In the next decade, your energy costs will exceed the cost of your computer itself. So the people most concerned about their financial situation are the less-rich ones who are doing research with major computing power, such as genome researchers, and projects funded by foundations.

Perhaps even more interesting than Sun's technological efficiencies are the way that their company uses them. What if you could give up your permanent office, get a time-share office, and work from wherever you want? Thin client technology, which uses 4 watts instead of a normal computer's 150 watts, are used for Sun's Open Work program for flex-location workers. Almost half of Sun's workforce is now part of the Open Work program, giving up their permanent offices for much nicer time-share spaces. Sun has reduced its German workspace tremendously: In Germany they've reduced office space to a sixth of what it was. Employee satisfaction is up, productivity is up, and in 2006 the company saved $63.9M saved in real estate costs.

More from SI06:

  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Dispatch from Chicago
  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Green to Gold
  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Resilience

    (All photos are c/o the Centre for Sustainable Design, who organized the event. Taken by Laura Flanigan of Foresight Design, Chicago)

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    Well, as somebody who works for Google in production engineering power consumption is a topic dear to my heart :)

    The little jab at us the Sun guy made over data center power usage isn't really fair however - one DC we built in Oregon (the one that got onto the front page of the New York Times) is powered by hydro electricity, and Google is behind several initiatives to improve the power usage of computers.

    "Thin computing" is not a solution. Sun have been pushing it for years even though it's never gone anywhere. All it does is move computational work from your desk to .... a datacenter! Why is so much power being used in datacenters anyway - it's because web applications like search, gmail etc are "thin" and run mostly on servers instead of on your desk. So all you do is move the energy usage around a bit rather than improve it.

    Posted by: Mike Hearn on 2 Nov 06

    Thanks Mike. It seemed to me that David was using Google as an illustration due to its ubiquity - not because he was trying to make a specific jab.

    Your point about moving server space elsewhere is well taken. The larger point, however, seemed to be in the overall impacts. A lot of Sun's emissions result from having servers in coal-burning regions. But getting computing power out of office buildings, and into datacenters, has positive impacts on energy use and heat in buildings (though not enough to offset all that coal); Open Work has positive impacts on transport emissions. Maybe thin client technology is simply a way of enabling all that.

    As you point out with your hydro-powered DCs in Oregon, there are all sorts of possible leverage points here. This just happens to be a few of them.

    Posted by: Dawn Danby on 2 Nov 06

    Yes, it's possible that in the end thin computing will turn out to be a net efficiency win ... at any rate, most apps currently hosted in data centers could never run on a desktop so it's a bit of an academic point.

    The day you can buy some kind of web terminal and have it do everything you need with only a few watts will be the day this model proves itself.

    I think the transport emissions issue is a very important one - increased use of teleworking can only help, although perhaps not as much as you'd hope. For a company that has great remote access for employees we still prefer to work in offices ...

    Anyway I just found this site/project, it seems like a really great source of info. Keep it up! :)

    Posted by: Mike Hearn on 3 Nov 06



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