Hugging Customers (Not Trees)

(Update – Interview with Dave Douglas, Sun’s VP, Economic-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.)


Filed under General

33 responses to “Hugging Customers (Not Trees)

  1. Niagara 2 completely rocks! I have to say the processor design team at Sun is really the best and their approach is completely different to what other people in the indusry is doing!! Its truly inspirational…

  2. DD

    There does seem to be quite a bit of "green" and "eco" PR that is fad behavior. I applaud Sun for being waste-conscious with true intentions rather than like the others on the fad bandwagon. And also being more thoughtful on the use of terms like "green." Is it just me that finds names like "Carbon Consulting" really annoying? It always makes me think, "What are they actually consulting about?" I guess the same goes for terms like "carbon neutral" and "carbon footprint." Since global warming is about carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide and carbon are very different things. And being eco-responsible is about more than global warming. "Carbon" to me means the element, graphite, or diamonds.

  3. ed

    Check out this US Carbon Footprint Map, an interactive United States Carbon Footprint Map, illustrating Greenest States to Cities. This site has all sorts of stats on individual State & City energy consumptions, demographics and much more down to your local US City level…

  4. I find it refreshing you recognise that pursuing green issues will being you more customers. I for one am intent on helping the environment where I can and if, by buying more efficient systems I help both myself AND the planet, then all the better.
    It sounds like a winner to me.

  5. Your post implicates that xVM is being used on Niagara 2. xVM is the nickname of "Xen on Solaris", and having Xen on SPARCs (such as Niagara) would be IT headline news, even more than Xen on Solaris already is, given that Xen allows to bypass some (not all) of the overhead of virtualizing operating systems.
    Were you refering to logical domains on Niagara 2?

  6. anagogue

    This is an excellent and interesting summary of the motivation behind Niagara. I was sad to see these chips thoroughly panned on /., and was curious why the chips had been designed as they had, with no obvious benefit on the performance side. Now I understand, and applaud the forward thinking!
    Getting all the new features into Niagara 2, while lowering power consumption still further is an amazing feat–even if it doesn’t give warm-fuzzies to the 1337 types who want to run "server" class hardware for their gaming desktops.

  7. LB

    Hug the retail home user… Give us some links/education portals for the small home user to understand opensource and recommended machines to transition from Windows to Solaris or run both! 10-Q

  8. Being a former tree hugger, I can definitely groove to going green(or going clean, as in energy), and I have spent a fair amount of time breaking down a companies trash to the point where we COMPLETELY eliminated waste. We set a goal of 0%, and after several months we achieved that, and we were able to increase our eco-awareness by buying the recycled material(plastics, metals, paper). This is all well and good, but ultimately, you have to cater to the bottom line, you are in business, after all. So, hugging trees is not necessarily the answer, at least if you are in business, but it does feel good to not have ANYthing in the dumpster, at the end of the week. Regarding HUGGING CUSTOMERS, yes! You ARE getting it. The goal we have where I work is to aim for providing an experience BETTER than sex. If you can do that, customers will keep coming back for more, especially if companies with great products continually treat their customers like their dog or pet hamster. Keep up the good work! Sun On!

  9. RJK

    I echo the sentiment, "Hug the retail home user", but I acknowledge that running Solaris on x86 is not the way to do it — not if the goal is to give them an eco-responsible alternative. I think Sun should take the lead in creating a Niagara-based Mini-ATX reference board, and let both reputable and cut-rate PC manufacturers build retail systems around it. Alternatively, a GPLed reference board design and coordination with a contract manufacturer may get some some ambitious tinkerers to assemble their own systems, and blog about the experience, and thereby convince mass market manufacturers to investigate.
    Now in some people’s minds, the big problem with this is that builders will have only a single source for Niagara processors; hopefully, this additional income stream doesn’t cause too much pain for Sun. And if it proves lucrative, forward-looking chip fabs may help solve the problem by investing in OpenSparc T1- and T2-based product lines.

  10. I would like a Sun laptop with a low energy Niagara II-processor, OpenSolaris kernel+Ubuntu user space application (Suns Project Indiana) + KDE 4 front end
    Please 🙂

  11. well as Patrick Georgi said before, isnt xVM just an xen fork with some extra love? this would be x86 only. dont throw around with project names like "virginia", give a link!
    after some digging, i read some where that xVM is also an interface for ldoms… ldoms are nothing new, only the number doubled by the number of threads (niagara>niagara2). you should explain that better…

  12. Justin Ames

    Wow, Niagra 2 sounds amazing. Going green isn’t all about helping the environment, it is about helping companies bottom lines as well, and Sun, it seems, is one of the few companies selling products that keep that in mind. More efficiency means less cost and more flexibility. I think protecting the environment is important, but not important enough to stop human progress. With products like Niagra, we can help the environment while helping ourselves.

  13. The Niagara 2 based systems – such at the Sun SPARC Enterprise X5120 Server- are not listed today as an available "Try and Buy" system

  14. Scott

    If you want real volume and to hug the largest number of customers, you need to have something for the home. Remember that Linux started in the home and moved to the data center. But do it differently to match your eco approach and give users something that dramatically changes the game. Enter SunRay. Think about a SunRay enabled home. A central server running Solaris with lots of DASD protected by ZFS. We can create as many user accounts as we need (think wife, children, guests, etc.) and each can be configured differently. Now how to access those accounts. A SunRay laptop! A cool one like the latest Intel reference laptop. It should have wifi (b,g,n) and wired ethernet, smart card, but little else to keep it cheap (no cellular radio). And create a stand alone battery charger as well. Now I can have a general purpose access device that the whole family can use with session persistence/portability and just change the batteries as it is used throughout the day. All the data is protected on the server and access is fast because the server is in the home. These laptops could be cheap and each home could easily have several. And be able to loan them to your neighbors if they need one. I think that would be powerful and would get the Sun brand in front of more people than anything else. Work with Microsoft if necessary to get Windows to work as the desktop OS (maybe xVM). Be bold. I will buy several.

  15. Dear Jonathan Schwartz,
    Yes, it sounds like heresy. You dared to decide to reject the notion of speed-at-any-cost and decide to do something optimal !
    When Honda announced its City line of cars in India it pointed out one thing in its advertisements. 80 % of the time, cars in an Indian city traffic move at around 20 kilometers per hour. So it designed its City not for Formula One performance that appeals to everyone, but for city driving. I don’t remember exactly what Honda said about its design, nor have I ever driven a City, but I think the City is a car optimally designed to effectively handle the intricacies of city driving, not for the race track the car might never get to see.
    Data Centers operate at 10% efficiency ? Not just the mammoth data centers, my own computer on my desk operates at less than 10% efficiency.
    Has anyone in the computer world ever did any research on what I need Vs what I fancy? What do I need most of the time ? I write a letter, check my mail, browse the Internet – not 90%, but 98% of the time. What are my processing needs ? A 486 ? A first generation Intel Pentium ? ( I am aware that some of today’s applications require certain features of today’s processor design, I am deliberately being superficial here in terms of the need for processor resources in general )
    When I wanted to buy a Dell laptop, I was automatically checking prices for a processor upgrade (upgrade from the more than ample processor that was offered as standard ) and compulsively chose twice as much RAM as was offered standard… I didn’t get to buy the laptop, but in the process of buying why was I behaving like that ?
    Do you want to send a team of researchers here to figure out why I fancy an Optron processor on my desktop when an Intel 486 is what I actually require? 486 may not be right, but it is definitely true that I don’t require what I have already, and without realizing this I want to throw away the machine that I have out of the window and buy a new one with the next generation processor, perhaps with a 4 GB DDR 3 RAM and a Terabyte in storage.
    It is time to look at two anachronistically lampooned quotes, one by Bill Gates and another by Ken Olson.
    "640 Kb ought to be enough for anybody."
    — Bill Gates, 1981
    "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
    — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
    True that these statements lacked foresight of today’s trends so they were wrong, but viewed differently, it is time to make these statements true.
    What if Sun Microsystems echoes these two statements with total conviction today? It wasn’t heresy in 1977 or 1981, but today it would be. And it requires a bit of heresy to green planet earth.
    640 KB ought to be enough for everybody. More than enough really. Because you don’t have to buy and power and carry your own storage anymore. The movies that you want in your harddisk is there online, available to you anywhere you are, on demand. And the music. And your mail messages and Documents. Even the operating system. Why do you do need to replicate them again and again, over and over again?
    There is no reason why anyone would want a computer at home. Yes, why do you need a computer when you have the network? The Network is the computer. Why do u need a 65 W or 90 W CPU? Why do you need an Operating System? If the “cloud” – the Web as an operating system happens, why do you need multiple, locally installed Operating Systems?
    ( Ian Murdock goes on to explain why an operating system still matters, but I am stretching the concept of cloud a little further to think aloud )
    Don’t buy a computer, buy a monitor with a 3 W thin circuit instead and travel by wire or wireless to come to us at a better loaded Grid, we will give you enough processor resources, enough for browsing when you browse, enough for writing a letter when you write a letter and enough to simulate nuclear fission if you have to. You want to work on a Solaris environment? Linux? Windows? Mac? 10 cents or a little more per hour, zero capital investments and an utility bill for 3 Watts.
    Do something to make me understand that I don’t need what I already have.
    It might require you to synthesize all available technologies, do more work on Niagara, do more work on the thin client architecture, load easier applications on the grid, modify the overall concept of the grid and so on,. If the already available technologies are brought together we could go on to live in a planet of a single 3 W device in place of redundantly multiple 65 W computers.
    Someone from France who lives in a French Residence in Pondichery near Chennai India told me that a French Kitchen is like a laboratory. The variety of ingredients to work with, not to mention the complexities of the various food processes, makes French cooking complex. He told me that there are 60 or more varieties of grass (English by a Frenchman, I guess he meant Salad Greens) I assumed that such a fussy system of cooking would be prone to wasting food. If the French Chefs, amidst all the complexities, manage not to squander anything, IT product and service architects can as well manage not to.
    There is a Vedic saying that can be transliterated as “Aano Bhadraaha Krathavo yantu vishwataha” (Let noble thoughts come to us from all directions).
    This time it comes from the Laundry Cookbook on a book shelf in Jonathan Schwartz’s Kitchen.

  16. Alex S

    Completly agree with much of this posting. Good business, good sense and vice versa

  17. karen

    I agree HVAC + power should be a BIG deal to $$$ datacenter budget..
    but your not getting the word out.. or nobody is listening..
    I suspect a huge part of server orders are done by alot of well meaning but careless IT staff who never see the power or HVAC bills..
    you have a shot at being a huge power-efficient server vendor but like I meantioned nobody knows or has heard your niagara story.
    you need to blitz this with major advertising..for once let the world know on a super bowl commercial or SOMETHING! dont sit down on this spend the $$ on good marketing!

  18. Keep up the good work! Wesleyan, too, is investing in the educational benefits of eco-responsibility. It is part of our mission as a liberal arts university, and as citizens.

  19. Jonathan, no doubt you meant Logical Domains, not Project Virginia. Also, we need to do a better job explaining to folks that "xVM" no longer just refers to our x86/x64 virtualization technology; that moniker now encompasses _all_ of Sun’s virtualization technologies.

  20. Peter

    It’s great to see, captivating, just how much Sun is innovating, to see Sun reinvent itself, the culture of innovation, a thriving ecosystem. This also translates into incredible value for customers, if your a technology professional and haven’t played around recently with Sun’s technology, you better start, or obsolescence will be knocking on your door, sooner than you think.

  21. tom moriarty

    Now Jonathan having an eco focus have you ever thought about a real home computer. There have been a lot of papers written and people have been looking at the automated house where all of the appliances etc are all connected to the home computer. It seems that with the niagra2 and solaris you have the flexibility to pull this off. A computer optimized for automating the home. Speech driven, maybe communicated with the rhomba, and lawnmower, control the HVAC for peak efficency.
    This could be a winner possibly be the computer of choice for millions of homes.

  22. T2 Rocks!

    Dude, T2 Rocks!! Now get me a Thumper with a T2!!

  23. The Greener the better, not forgetting that Sun recycle, re-manufacture and re-sell. I being a avid cook myself, not that time permits us that often, I liked the adage where the cook wastes nothing, and adds great value.

  24. Robert Weiler

    Gee, I hate to be the naysayer here, but if you would really like to hug your customers, you would price the Niagara 2 systems competitively. My current employer could use literally thousands of Niagara 2 machines, but not a list price that almost 3 times the price of Sun’s own dual quad x86 server. Even if you have to toss in a crypto boards and some extra memory, the X86 box is 1/2 the price. You can’t make up that difference in energy savings over the life of the machine. The price certainly can’t be in the components as the two machines share almost everything in common except the motherboard and CPU, and the 5220 only has one CPU. You would have thought that by now Sun would have figured out that in the computer business, volume is the most important thing, it is the only thing that matters.

  25. Bob M

    Very convincing, until I got to Robert Weiler’s comment, for I am scared of premium pricing/products in a market that keeps going commodity. I always look to outfits like CERN or Google as bellwethers. I hope they see the savings from Sun and buy, buy, buy.

  26. I’m not sure how many customers would be ready to wait for savings to materialize over many years when they can buy a lot more cheaper machines today because of focus on the short term. However, it is indeed commendable that Sun is talking about going "Green", "Carbon-neutral" etc. Focus by companies like Sun will translate into common people becoming aware of this issue and hence may contribute towards goal of clean energy.

  27. Feedback

    Just one product can be a turn around for any company provided they really meet certain requirements (value, design, needs etc) of consumers/customers. Like iPOD for Apple, search for google to name a few. For Sun, would it be a) Green? [Every web site/ data center going to use Niagara systems] b) Java? [Every application will be written in Java] c) Solaris? [Every hardware will be shipped with Solaris] d) Storage [Every bit of data will be avaliable on Thumper]? I am confident that one of the choices above is going to turn company around for future growth. The key to success here is in innovation and lead in that particular area.
    All directions looks promising for Sun.

  28. Vaughn Rhoades

    I just have 1 comment/question:
    where is the "JAVA" phone from Sun?

  29. Kevin

    Today I read in the register about your new workstations. It’s so good to see Sun returning to its roots, with a huge injection of personality and quality. When I saw the log on the side of the box, it reminded me of the Mercedes insignia – a sign of quality design and engineering. Congratulations on transitioning from a has-been dot-net boom-bust to an eco-conscious value-generating better-than. I’m invested long for your Nov 5th results.

  30. Kebab

    It seems that SUN is loosing a lot of deals because SUN only targets big companies, neglecting the small ones. Havent you considered that the big companies have been small once? Seriously, SUN should allow smaller companys to buy equipment. The following story is horrendous and there are lots of people confirming that they didnt succeed in getting in touch with SUN salesman and therefore bought DELL (among them a top 10 hedge fund in USA), read this blogg:
    Every dollar counts. Dont focus only on Galaxy servers. Take care of your smaller customers too.

  31. Mark Lee

    Along the lines of Hugging Customers (Not Trees), it would seem that
    integrating the advanced Niagara 2 System with customize iPhone Java
    applications would provide state-of-the-art touch interface applications
    allowing CFO’s and managers to track sales/inventory/reports/metrics/data
    in real-time with full-screen functionality.
    Are there plans for development of a Java SDK based on the upcoming iPhone/SDK
    which would allow thousands of new Java business applications to be
    written for the iPhone?

  32. Efficiency is THE approach. Kudos

  33. we had been avoiding the 1st generation off Niagara 1 because its lack of support for floating point precision math on the chip, which is really required for our GIS related web application. Perhaps it is time to take another looks.
    Can you make the it cheaper? While innovating the original to version two, add more value, why not mass producing the original one, reduce cost, pass on saving to smaller data center and gain some future customers? true it is "Green" and "Efficient", but more "Value" is preferred. And don’t blame your smaller customer for being short termed and lack of vision.
    btw, 100 million in revenue with a so much hyped new product for a company with 3.8 Billion sale is not much to excited about. It simply does not contribute a lot to the bottom line. It is a good start thought.

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