(Update – Interview with Dave Douglas, Sun’s VP, Eco
nomic-Responsibility at bottom of this entry)
A few folks know I like to cook. It pairs well with liking to eat. A good friend gave me a beautiful cookbook last year, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook.
It’s gorgeous book, but I will admit to having prepared a dish from it only once – the recipes are complicated, and take far more time than I typically have (the author admits, up front, people like me aren’t his target demographic). But one of the things I love about the book is Keller’s focus on efficiency – out of respect for the ingredients, and the economics of running a commercial kitchen. “Should a cook squander anything, ever?” Great chefs and kitchens waste nothing.
Now, waste is a generic term. It means one thing to a consumer frustrated with the 60,000,000 plastic bottles we dispose of daily in the US. It’s another thing to a CIO who just realized she’s running datacenters at 10% efficiency. At that level, as in a commercial kitchen, it’s not an annoyance, it’s a waste. Of money.
About five years ago, we made a simple but important bet – that our customers would eventually look at waste in their datacenters with a far more scrutinizing eye. We bet the cost of powering a computer would eventually exceed its purchase price – and thus focusing on energy waste would be a profitable pursuit. (Just imagine if your gasoline cost more than your car… oil hit $86/barrel today, btw.)
We introduced our first energy efficient server system about 18 months ago, known as Niagara 1 (the name is a nod to the machine’s throughput capacity). We did the introduction in London, home to the world’s most expensive real estate – space being a precious asset for most of our customers, as well.
But after years of R&D, we showed up with something confusing: we rejected the notion of speed at any cost (a first in the industry), and optimized the system not for speed, but for efficiency, reducing power waste. Like a bus, not a Formula 1 racer (the former getting radically better per passenger mileage). We similarly suggested the world should move away from running one application per machine, and instead collapse many tasks onto the same machine – heresy at the time has since been renamed virtualization.
Those who love desktop computers thought we were daft. Here we had what looked like a slow chip, optimized for something no home user really cared about (lowering power bills, running multiple OS’s and minimizing space). And to make matters worse, we removed support for floating point precision math on the chip – to save more power and space. Desktop users (who play games that often feast on floating point processes) thought we were loons, but most datacenters didn’t notice (very few datacenters use floating point).
Net result? Within two quarters, revenue hit $100m per quarter. And by last quarter, systems based on Niagara 1 were nearly a billion dollar annualized business – from a cold start 18 months prior. It wasn’t for every application (don’t simulate nuclear fission on a Niagara 1 system), but for internet workloads (databases, web and app servers), it set new records for work/watt.
Were we hugging trees? That wasn’t the only point. We were hugging our customers. Customers out of space and power who, like great chefs, feel there’s no point in waste.
So a couple weeks ago, we introduced the second generation of Niagara based systems, known as Niagara 2. Niagara 2 adds an incredible breadth of new features and performance enhancements (this is a good summary).
We shrunk the process used to make the chip, and upped the clockrate to boost overall performance. We doubled the thread count (8 cores x 8 threads = 64 threads), and via xVM (formerly, Project Virginia) virtualization: a single Niagara 2 chip can collapse 64 independent operating systems onto a single system. Not separate application partitions, 64 separate operating systems – from Solaris and other real time OS’s, to Linux or BSD. (As far as we know, no one else can do that without a huge performance penalty.)
We added cryptographic ciphers (algorithms used to encrypt/decrypt data for secure storage or transmission over the internet) onto the microprocessor – so users don’t have to power, or provision space for extraneous security functions. We added (dual 10 Gigabit ethernet) networking onto the chip, eliminating yet more waste. Niagara 2 isn’t simply a server, it’s a true system – in the spirit of the Systems team introducing it. Our first Niagara 2 systems are as wondrous a head-end for storage farms (using wire speed encryption), as they will be PBX’s, firewalls, routers – and with floating point added back in force, wonderful rendering engines and high performance computing machines.
And on equivalent workloads, we dropped our power draw – that is, we lowered the power required to do the same amount of work.
Again, tree hugging? Nope, customer hugging. Does that make Sun green? Not by a long shot, but it’s a good step forward.
So our investments in eco-responsibility are starting to pay off – and the trends we were in front of a couple years ago (power efficiency and virtualization) have only become more relevant. Not to everyone, certainly – only those that care about minimizing waste. If you’d like a free trial Niagara 2 machine, just click here.
And much though I appreciate Kevin Maney’s column, I think he’s wrong in this opinion piece – to dismiss a focus on eco-responsibility as a fad. It’s one thing for waist-conscious consumers to avoid high carb diets. It’s another thing entirely when you’re talking to a government seeking to avoid new coal fired power plants, a C-level executive committed to extreme efficiency, or the employee of a company whose CEO has just said, “We will be carbon neutral.”
There is, and there will always be commercial opportunity in eliminating inefficiency – to be clear, that’s our primary motivation. Paint it any color you want.
Along the way, if we reduce our carbon footprint, minimize our waste stream, and get crisper about our views on corporate social responsibility – does that have an impact on customers wanting to do business with us? Absolutely yes. I’ve seen it firsthand.
It also has an impact on our competitiveness as an employer. Do our current and potential employees care about the efficiency and responsibility of our business? At least as much as the chefs in Keller’s kitchen, if not more.
(Interview with Dave Douglas here – Dave is leading the effort to reduce waste and environmental impact at Sun, and downstream in our customer base.)