I can’t be the first to have noticed that Sun, rather conveniently, shares its name with our star, the source of all of our energy. Whether it’s fossil fuels, wind, waves, water or (obviously) solar, they are all derived from the sun’s warmth.
Interestingly, Sun is one of the pioneers in taking an environmentally responsible approach to its business and to those of its customers. I know that Hewlett Packard was the highest placed IT company for environmental responsibility, so I’ll be coming back to it in another post.
Richard Barrington, Sun’s head of Sustainability and Public Policy, spoke to us recently about Sun’s environmental credentials. They’re impressive, providing you ignore the fact that kit has to be junked in order to replace it with Sun equipment. How about a desktop thin client that consumes 4 watts and lasts 21 years? Or datacentres that don’t require you to wear a fur coat? Or virtualisation slashing energy needs? These are all decent stories and withstand examination. Sun pioneered much of this stuff, even if others are beginning to catch up. The record is there to be seen.
More important are some of the big, thought-shaping issues, raised or triggered by Barrington’s presentation. One of the most important for all is that humans are pouring out toxins, waste and carbon and consuming the planet’s resources unnecessarily. For the good of future generations, we should change our behaviour.
Don’t even begin to debate what is causing global warming, or climate change as we’re now supposed to call it. It’s happening. It doesn’t matter whether you believe Al Gore or Martin Durkin, common sense tells us to make change, for the good of our pockets as well as our grandchildren. The planet, incidentally, couldn’t care less. It will survive without us.
Sun’s conference agenda was all about growth, a theme which sits uncomfortably with minimising our use of resources. But Sun is finding its growth in environmentally concerned organisations such as Betfair and Strato. They both chose Sun datacentre equipment because it balanced cost, service and energy use better than its competitors. Sun’s dream is to spot the next Google, so it can supply all the kit.
Interestingly, some electricity companies are offering rebates to customers who buy Sun’s Niagara servers. Suddenly, you realise that they’d only do this if they were concerned about their potential capacity. Energy companies actually face the real prospect of running out of steam. (No pun intended.)
Reflect on that a bit more and you’ll realise that clean sources of power are even more finite than conventional sources. Strato made a smart move by securing hydro-electricity supplies, giving them the right to claim its use of ‘carbon-free’ electricity. Not strictly true if you think about transmission and plant building etcetera, but you can see its point.
Getting away from energy, what about toxicity and waste? Buying companies need to look at the entire life cycle of their suppliers’ products or services. According to Barrington, "it takes two tons of raw material to make a PC." One ton of that is water. Whether it is reused, I have no idea, so one must exercise a degree of caution with the figure. But, two tons for a product that weighs a few pounds and is more or less useless after three or four years seems insane. Unless, of course, the components can be recycled into something of equal or higher value (see McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle book for more on this theme). Sun has moved to all metal construction for maximum recyclability, not to mention the avoidance of plastics which are made from expensive and harder to recycle hydrocarbons.
Have you considered tape storage from the perspective of energy use? It uses none, except when looking for stuff. Have you considered the changes in lifestyle that certain computing activities bring about? For example, remote working and videoconferencing save travel while online transactions save paper and postal deliveries.
It’s actually time to stop simply thinking about virtualisation and datacentre optimisation as the big environmental improvement opportunity. Before long this will be as much a novelty as the 3-1/2" floppy disk was in the mid-eighties. CIOs and their fellow board members will need to consider how IT helps companies to meet their wider environmental obligations.