Full transcript: Interview with Sun Microsystems Asia Pacific CTO Angus MacDonald

| August 27, 2008

Green Telecom talks to Sun Microsystems Asia Pacific CTO Angus MacDonald on the company’s motivations behind its annual carbon reporting survey of Australian businesses, the company’s internal environmental strategy, and the Australian government’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

So what was the motivation behind the environmental reporting survey?

The thing that I find interesting is that, now that we have now done the report for a couple of years, the statistical results that we get are the same year-on-year. But I think this year, some 38% of the people said they had things underway and another 15%-19% said they were doing it in the next year. The curiously thing is that the results last year were almost the same, which would go to suggest that those people who had good intentions the previous year, never did anything.

In terms of that report, the data that I found most interesting is the fact that many corporations are not ready for reporting environmental data, which I believe is probably one of the most challenging aspects of going green?

From what we’ve been able to see, I think that people have been putting off and putting off because there weren’t any imperative for them to do so. I think when we are working with people, the first three piece of advice we give them are; you need to measure, then you need to measure again, then you need to measure again.

The challenge is obviously two fold. One is to look at the Garnaut report in Australia and what it has talked about, then looking at being able to measure (carbon footprint). I think they’ve got targets of the largest companies to start off, then moving on to the rest of the populace. I think there is an imperative first of all from a governmental regulation point-of-view going forward that they be able to report on what their carbon footprint looks like.

But equally a lot of people have embarked on things like consolidation, and made a lot of use of virtualization, for that they need to measure their starting position. I’m detecting already there are a lot of people out in the market place that have spent a fair bit of money on consolidation and virtualization, and now they are not able to really quantify financially, or from a carbon footprint point of view, what the savings they have made because they really didn’t know what their costs were to start with.

So I think it’s been one of those things because there was no imperative to do it and people were unsure of how they should do it, they just avoided it. I think going forward, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on them to actually start measuring. Also, internally, a lot of organizations, and a lot of CIOs that I speak to, now have KPIs within their overall goals of reducing their power consumption.

Usually, corporates look at it from the perspective of – they want to reduce power consumption and air-conditioning – but when they describe it externally, they say they want to reduce their carbon footprint, but at the end of the day, what is motivating them at the moment is the sheer costs of them in dollar terms. I think one of the interesting statistics to come out it, is the number of organisations that know that the power source for their IT, i.e. data centres, were over a million dollars a year – that is something they can actually do something significant about reducing.

So what has Sun done in Australia in this respect?

We’ve done quite a lot. We deal with it from a global perspective to start with and I’ll come back to that. From a local perspective, all of Sun’s subsidiaries, geographical areas as we call them, have a responsibility themselves to look at what the implications are – from a perspective of addressing the whole carbon footprint challenge.

Part of question why we have done it that way, in Australia and New Zealand for example, we actually have a team of staff members who are looking at all of the sorts of things that impinge on that area. So we are looking at things like improving the usage of videoconferencing, looking at making sure that all of the default settings for laser printers are double-sided print, those sorts of things. It’s actually been largely driven by the staff under the executive level.

The reason we have done it that way is culturally, obviously, if you look around the Asia Pacific, indeed if you look around the world, most countries have different culturally approaches to it, so rather than corporately trying to drive out a single message, we’ve allowed each country to look at see what works best for them.

The other thing is the issues are different (between different countries). If you look at New Zealand, whilst they have challenges around providing base load power going forward, most of their power is a lot of greener in its generation than, for example, Victoria, which is largely coal-based; New South Wales, which is largely coal-based. So the challenges are slightly different. On a local basis, Australia and New Zealand actually have a team of people who are looking at what we can do collectively to actually reduce the green costs within Sun.

Corporately, they are actually looking at how they can support the initiatives that go on worldwide. So they are looking at, for example – one of the corporate initiatives have been a program called, openwork, which is basically to turn a lot of our offices into flexible offices. More important is, the majority of staff now has the ability to actually work from anywhere. So the sort of benefits we get from that, we would have a lot of people, for example, who if they don’t have an early morning meeting, will get up and do their email from home, check their calendars and start writing their reports, etc. They can get into Sun’s internally network securely from anywhere in the world. And it means if you don’t have to travel during peak hour, you no longer have to. That in itself is a significant saving. Obviously, driving in heavy traffic is a greater emitter of carbon than driving after peak hour, or before peak hour. So we’ve done a lot to enable people to actually be active and productive, whether they are at home, or they happened to be at a customer site. The classic case is, you might have two meetings in the city that is separated by an hour. You can now find somewhere quiet to sit and practically work, get access to everything inside Sun, from a public place. That really has enabled different thinking and different work practices.

It’s hard to put a figure on it, but we believe that we’ve probably reduced about 30,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, just in the differences it has made in the heavily populated areas, with people not having any longer to tie themselves to particular hours because they couldn’t get to Sun from anywhere outside the office.

From a data centre point of view, we have actually centralised our data centres. We have a handful of them worldwide and what we have done in those data centres is probably a very good example of what can be achieved for the majority of customers. Now, other than the black box of modular data centres – we don’t specifically sell data centres, we are finding that the practices and experiences that we have implemented, for example, in our Santa Clara data centre, are resonating with a lot of our customers and giving them ideas on how they can perhaps approach their data centres differently. So we have consolidated a number of the US data centres into the Santa Clara data centre. We reduced the amount of floor space by, I think, it’s over two-thirds. We have reduced the number of servers by over half. We got rid of substantial number of devices, etc.

In actual fact, one of the energy utilities in the US have given us a substantial rebate because they believed the new data centre actually relieved some of demand that they had, in increasing their own base loads.

We recently won an award for innovation for these initiatives. The data centre that we’ve built in Santa Clara – and there are two others modelled in the same way – it doesn’t have a raised floor for example, we no longer air-condition the entire data centre.

We work with partners like APC, with Emission, Leibert, to cool the equipment specifically. We have hot aisles and cold aisles and the air-conditioning in those aisles sit next to the equipment, so that the heat is much more closely controlled, to the point that so if the equipment is under heavy load, the air conditioning ramps up a little bit, and if the load drops, then the air-conditioning ramps down. We’ve done a tremendous amount both from a data centre point of view but also through practices, and what we have enabled staff to do worldwide.

It seems that you’re moving beyond just selling Sun’s equipment, are you going to market with partners and offering kind of consultancy services as well?

Over the last six to nine months, we have actually taken a lot of the learning that we’ve made from the data centre consolidation that we did for ourselves in the new data centres, and we have packaged those into some services that we are now starting to offer Australia, but that we have been offering in the US and Europe, which actually enables us to go in, sit with customers and explore the sorts of things that they can actually do, and how they can improve it.

Some customers actually will gain benefit from basically re-implementing their data centre, but the changes don’t have to be expensive, and they don’t have to be major. They could be something as simple as walking into a data centre – a lot of data centres in Australia, for example, are run at between 18-20 degrees (Celsius), if you bumped that temperature up, you’ll actually save money on the air conditioning. We are a relatively hot environment, and we pay a lot in data centres to cool them to 18-20 degrees (Celsius), whereas sometimes that is necessary for the nature of the equipment in those data centres. So changes can be as trivial as turning up the thermostat.

We are doing a lot of consulting now, starting in Australia and New Zealand, to consult with our partners to customers. Some of those partners may be people like APC, some of them will be our traditional partners that we are giving some of the IP around.

So are people getting the message?

I think the answer to that is somewhat mixed. There are some that think this is the next Y2K. Y2K was an interesting challenge and they are people out there that feel the IT industry as a whole beat up the whole Y2K question substantially and that the problem never existed, etc. I think that there are some people who think the whole green IT thing is a beef up, but I think there are more who understand – whether they believe in global warming or not. Global warming to a lot of corporates is not part of the issue – the issue for them is that they are spending millions of dollars in powering the equipment, millions of dollars on cooling it – they are real financial benefits in actually greening their data centres.

There’s a lot of confusion about the sorts of things that can be done. I think a lot of the CIOs that I speak to believe that it is just a matter of cost to do it. Some of them don’t understand that there are actually financial benefits in doing the consolidations or doing the greening of the data centre.

So it is a very mixed environment. Generally, there’s a belief that most organisations need to do something, and these fall into three categories: Those who are leading edge and who are already starting to do it, and appreciate that it is not something that happens overnight, that it is a journey that can quite often take two to three years; There are those that know something’s got to be done, but are still trying to figure out what precisely and I think it comes down to some confusion in the market place, of what sorts of things lead to reducing carbon footprint; The third group acknowledged that there’s an expectation that they do something, but they’ll get around to it someday – those are the ones who will be in for the biggest shock because I suspect that socially, there’s going to be a lot of pressure over the next couple of years and certainly, when I talk to banks for example, they are painfully aware that they will lose customers if customers see them as non-green. I think there’s an increasing social pressure, which smart companies are understanding, and starting to react to. I think some of the companies that are slower are going to get a shock when they discover that there’s perhaps going to be a backlash with not being socially responsible in that area.

So how important is this issue as a selling point for Sun, and is this a big market opportunity?

Yes, I think it absolutely is. If you look at the sort of equipment that Macquarie Telecom are using, Sun entered the x86 market about 3 years ago and I think a lot of people looked and said ‘why would they do that?’ Part of the reason was, having no presence in that market previously, we basically went and took a clean sheet of paper and designed our systems from the ground up.

So even comparing like-for-like systems between ourselves and the HPs and the Dells, etcs of the world, our systems typically offer the same or better performance, but have a lower carbon footprint, because they are more efficiently designed. If you look at the old SPARC equipment that we used to have, we have actually now replaced a lot of that with the new ultra SPARC chip – the ultra SPARC 1 and ultra SPARC 2.

It’s taken a little while for people to really adopt it because it is a radically different approach to processing. Rather than doing one thing at a time really, really quickly, the concept behind the ultra SPARC T-series is to do 32 or 64 things at the same time, but at a slower speed, so the overall result is that, if you actually only want to do one thing at a time, then the ultra SPARC T-series is not really going to do the job very well. If on the other hand, you’ve got an application that needs to do 40 or 50 things at a time, the ultra SPARC T-series is much more efficient as a processor than any other processor on the market.

The benefit from a green perspective is, that processor basically looks like a 64 CPU machine to the operating system even though it is a single chip. It draws a lot less power than Atheons, our old ultra SPARC 3 and 4, than Xeons, etc, etc, and can offer anything up to a ten-fold improvement in the power consumption per performance offered by those systems. We are trying to engineer in a lot of green credentials in those systems.

The other side of the equation we are looking at is in designing these systems. We are moving away from using a lot of plastic and those sorts of things because there is obviously an eco impact of using plastics because of their petroleum base. And also, a lot of the plastics that the IT vendors use are not recyclable easily.

So we are starting to put metal back into our systems because we can recycle that. We started to design the systems so they can be easily taken apart to be recycled. We are aiming for and achieving, on the systems we get back, a 95% recycling and reuse, so only 5% of what we return to the factories ever goes into the waste stream.

We want to develop and foster a program that enables us to take back all the equipment that we replace. So if a customer upgrades, we want to be able to take back the equipment that they are replacing. But one of the challenges for Australia and New Zealand has been, when actually calculated the costs of transporting equipment back overseas to have them re-engineer or disassemble, sometimes the transport negates the benefits you gain.

It’s not a simple question to answer, but certainly we are doing a tremendous amount to try and ensure that everything we offer draws less power, generates less heat, generates the same performance that people are looking for, but solves the problems of, the costs of manufacturing, using and then dismantling equipment at the end of its life time. This is proving to be very compelling to customers.

I think unfortunately, the economy is presenting people with a challenge for the moment, so perhaps the uptake is slower than would otherwise have happened. I suppose how I would characterise it is – we are seeing a tremendous amount of interest and a lot of people are looking seriously at utilising it, it is just taking a little longer to consummate some of the sales then it use to be.

If we can go back to the reporting aspect, how does Sun measure and report on its own environmental performance?

We actually publish a report. It’s part of the corporate social responsibility report that we publish each year. What we try to do – we are in the same situation as a lot of organisations in that obviously we have been around for a couple of decades, so we are starting off on existing base.

If we are starting something from scratch, it would have been a lot easier as you can appreciate. What we try to do is, in the case of data centres and those sorts of areas, as we refresh them we are actually putting in measuring equipment. So for example, we can tell minute-to-minute, how much power particular areas of our centres are using, how much air-conditioning demand that they are generating, etc, etc. Through performance and management of the system themselves, we know how many users they are servicing, etc.

It’s a matter of instrumentation at that point, and measurement, so we are now getting to the stage now where we can measure from the point of view of our processing, what we are delivering per user and what the overall cost per user is.

From the point the view of the less tangible things, we are trying to use industry figures and our experience to, for example, measure how far our staff travel. We get reports from airlines that we contract that do our flying for us on what they think the carbon emissions for staff travelling are, so that gives us the ability to then start looking at and calculating the savings that can be made if we can hold meetings using video conference rather than sitting across the table.

So it’s a journey, it is not something you suddenly on Monday morning turn on and you’ve got a measurement of everything. So of it is very accurate, such as what is going on in the data centres and the consumptions that we get from our desktops and those sorts of things. Some of it is based on best estimates, industry averages, such as what is the cost of people travelling to and from work.

Certainly, we are putting a tremendous effort into actually trying to measure that and give people the ability to start making intelligent decisions from a staff point of view. What we want to do, and we’re not quite there yet, is give people like myself, the ability to look at say, ‘well, flying to Melbourne for things like the CommsDay congress is a no brainer.’ You can’t really do that as effectively via video conference, but what I need to do and here are the savings I can do by surrounding that with three or four customers meetings. If I get a request to go and do a presentation to two people, then what we are trying to do is give ourselves the ability to understand what the implications of that are, and what the savings might be if I was to do that over a video conference, or something to that nature.

In our CSR report, you’ll start to get a flavour for the sort of things we are measuring, and can determine closely, and the sorts of strategies and directions we are heading. I think more and more companies are going to have to generate those types of reports. And we have some tenders from companies here in Australia, where they actually request that as part of the tender response because they want to determine the CSR criteria.

Is that becoming a very important part of customer tenders, in addition to specific statistics on power consumption and so on?

Nearly all of our customers are asking for information on power consumptions and that sort of things and that has changed over the last couple of years. As far as the CSR, what I’m finding is large enterprises, probably three out of the four major banks here, would ask us to demonstrate our green credentials. I think it is becoming increasingly important for federal and state governments here. It seems to me that large corporations that are starting to ask us for our green credentials, as opposed to just ‘how much is it going to cost me to run this equipment?’ And certainly, a number of them are progressing to the stage where it is now part of their decision making criteria rather than a question that they just ask in passing.

You mentioned the instrumentation that Sun is using to measure its power consumption in its data centres and equipment, are these now part of Sun’s product portfolio?

Those are the sort of things that we’ve done with Liebert, with Emerson, with APC. We are going out to customers and saying, ‘here’s how we have done it.’ I supposed one of the differences I see in Sun’s approach to this whole thing is, our view is we want to innovate around the whole ICT, whether it has to do with carbon footprint, or whether it be just to do with future processing needs for the network, we then want to act on it ourselves so we are very much into eating our own dog food, so to speak. But then we want to share it.

A very large portion of our motivation, and that is part of the reason why we went open source, we believe the power of the innovation comes about when other people start to use it and start to pick it up. So what we’ve done in the data centre, we can certainly consult to customers and explain to them how we did it and how that might parallel what they want to do, but the measuring equipment, etc, comes from people like Emerson, who do a lot of the power distribution systems in data centres, and people like APC, who are doing a lot of the UPS and so on. We are certainly using the knowledge that we’ve gained, using the things that we’ve jointly developed. Certainly these vendors have incorporated some of the things we suggested, into future products. Those are things our customers would require from our partners, but we are very proactively making that known. That is part of the main thing, to be able to share the experiences.

We’ve actually set up a website, openeco.org. The idea behind that – it is not tied to Sun, we just funded it and got it going – but we want people to share their experience. We don’t have all of the intellect in the universe – it would be great if we did – but the fact of the matter is our competitors do come up with clever ideas, so do our customers.

What we are trying to do is encourage people that come up with those sorts of ideas to be able to share them. We are starting to see some uptake of that, so people can publish: here is where we started, here’s how we measured, here is what we ended up, here are the potholes we fell into, here are the positive experiences we’ve had, and get them to share that on the website.

Last question is, what is Sun doing to prepare for the proposed carbon cap and trade scheme that the Australian government has put forth, which outlines a pretty aggressive schedule?

It’s a fairly aggressive schedule. We are doing three things.

One is that we are working with government and trying to give them advice from the perspective we’ve seen in trying to implement these things ourselves elsewhere. I think that there’s probably going to be a fair bit of consultancy by the government and it won’t surprise me if some of their timelines and some of their expectations change a little. We are trying to bring the industry and our customers’ experiences to bear and to make sure that, that knowledge is available to them.

Internally, we are working very hard to ensure we have the infrastructure and capability in place to be able to do the measurement ourselves and to assist in helping customers do the same thing.

The third thing is, in working with people who have done it worldwide, but also people that have opinions and views, to try to get a sense of what people are expecting, particularly in identifying the challenges and problems are concerned about, and be able to reflect those. We would like to be able to act as a bit of a guide in some of those things because a lot of the underpinnings we have already done.

It is really those two sides. One is trying to provide and participate in helping the government, make a sensible input. The other is to prepare ourselves, so that we can satisfy whatever they decide on.

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