Sun and the data center meltdown

Sun Microsystems is a funny company. It jumped directly from hyperactive adolescence to midlife crisis, complete with ponytail. Ever since the dot-com crash decimated its free-spending customer base, the company’s been on a quest to find itself – and give a jolt to its flat-lining stock price. That quest, dutifully chronicled in the blog of company president Jonathan Schwartz, has looked increasingly desperate of late, as Sun has bounced between marketing pitches like Ricochet Rabbit on a meth jag. One minute it’s the Anti-Dell, then it’s the Leader in Responsible Computing, then it’s the Fastest Chip on Earth company, then it’s the Volume Is Everything company, then it’s the Free Software company, then it’s “The Dot in Web 2.0,” then it’s challenging Steve Jobs to a “pod duel” – and that’s just in the last two months.

The sad thing about Sun’s lack of discipline is that it distracts from the company’s powerful message about the computer industry’s very real energy crisis. In a posting on his blog today, Schwartz writes, “We create computers that draw enormous amounts of power, throw off huge amounts of heat, which requires the world to build power plants and install power hungry air conditioners.” He links to a CNET article on the explosion in server power consumption, which in turn cites a recent paper on electricity use by Google engineer Luiz André Barroso. Barroso’s paper, which appeared in September in ACM Queue, is well worth reading. He shows that while Google has been able to achieve great leaps in server performance with each successive generation of technology it’s rolled out, it has not been able to achieve similar gains in energy effiiciency: “Performance per watt has remained roughly flat over time, even after significant efforts to design for power efficiency. In other words, every gain in performance has been accompanied by a proportional inflation in overall platform power consumption. The result of these trends is that power-related costs are an increasing fraction of the TCO [total cost of ownership].”

He then gets more specific:

A typical low-end x86-based server today can cost about $3,000 and consume an average of 200 watts (peak consumption can reach over 300 watts). Typical power delivery inefficiencies and cooling overheads will easily double that energy budget. If we assume a base energy cost of nine cents per kilowatt hour and a four-year server lifecycle, the energy costs of that system today would already be more than 40 percent of the hardware costs.

And it gets worse. If performance per watt is to remain constant over the next few years, power costs could easily overtake hardware costs, possibly by a large margin … For the most aggressive scenario (50 percent annual growth rates), power costs by the end of the decade would dwarf server prices (note that this doesn’t account for the likely increases in energy costs over the next few years). In this extreme situation, in which keeping machines powered up costs significantly more than the machines themselves, one could envision bizarre business models in which the power company will provide you with free hardware if you sign a long-term power contract.

The possibility of computer equipment power consumption spiraling out of control could have serious consequences for the overall affordability of computing, not to mention the overall health of the planet.

If energy consumption is a problem for Google, arguably the most sophisticated builder of data centers in the world today, imagine where that leaves your run-of-the-mill company. As businesses move to more densely packed computing infrastructures, incorporating racks of energy-gobbling blade servers, cooling and electricity become ever greater problems. In fact, many companies’ existing data centers simply can’t deliver the kind of power and cooling necessary to run modern systems. That’s led to a shortage of quality data-center space, which in turn (I hear) is pushing up per-square-foot prices for hosting facilities dramatically. It costs so much to retrofit old space to the required specifications, or to build new space to those specs, that this shortage is not going to go away any time soon.

The only way out is to shift to a much more efficient model of business computing. That means more energy-efficient computers and other gear. But it also means more efficient computing in general. The reigning client-server model of corproate computing is by nature terribly inefficient – it requires massive redundancy in systems, which in turn results in extraordinarily low levels of capacity utilization. The model was necessary in the past because, given the constraints in the capacity of data-communication networks, it was the only way to deliver robust computing to the individual employee. But now that networking capacity is catching up with processor power, we have the opportunity to move to a much more centralized model of business computing, with much higher capacity utilization and hence much greater efficiency.

Standing in the way of this shift is the IT industry itself. Inefficient computing has been a boon to hardware and software firms: What supplier wouldn’t relish a situation in which customers have to, individually and in the aggregate, buy far more stuff then they’ll ever use? As Barroso notes, in reference to chip design, traditional IT industry marketing is one of the reasons underlying the current energy crisis.

It’s here that Sun has a real opportunity – not just to promote its new line of energy-efficient servers, but to break away from the competition and blaze a trail toward a whole new model of more-efficient business computing. (My guess is that the company’s recent alliance with Google is less about creating browser-based office software than about conserving kilowatts.) But if Sun is to succeed, it needs to get its act together – to adopt a single, coherent market positioning and stick to it with relentless, unwavering discipline. Blogging is not a strategy.

9 thoughts on “Sun and the data center meltdown

  1. Vinnie Mirchandani

    The biggest single “fuel” problem for the tech industry is still expensive talent. You have laid out a vision for utility computing. I have laid out the challenges to adoption in the post below. Sun’s big opportunity is to take your vision and create solutions which offset the issues I raise. Which means rather than focusing on Dell, it needs to squeeze the elements that IBM, HP, EDS, Oracle over price for and deliver less than pleasing product for

  2. Arthur Hobbens

    Nick, your critique of Sun seems unfair – they’ve been consistent with their strategy and their R&D for years. And certainly experimenting with business models (just as you experiment with media strategies).

    They’ve also been consistently refuting the dangerously naive view you and your team have been promoting that IT Doesn’t Matter – you are singlehandedly responsible for numerous businesses ignoring the very real reality that IT is one of the few things that really matter. So perhaps you should stop destroying jobs and competitiveness, and start seeing the world through the eyes of leaders that must differentiate against the Google’s, Amazon’s and eBay’s of the world.

  3. Anthony Cowley

    While increased network capacity certainly makes higher processing capacity utilization possible, I don’t think it implies a shift to centralized computing.

    I think the time of power-conscious gear is upon us, and I expect all my devices will be that way. The trend applies to cell phones, desktop computers, and blades.

  4. Vinnie Mirchandani

    Arthur..I work wtih CIOs as a consultant and do not always agree with Nick’s views…but most CIOs I know have used his theme to show their management where IT does matter. If you go to my blog you can see several examples of IT driven innovation.

    Sun’s problems have little to do with Nick’s views – more to do with not being competitive with Linux and not having as diverse a product base as IBM or HP (not much software or services) or even Dell (which has a consumer market, not just corporate).

    Blame the CIOs from Sun’s problems – or credit them for being savvy buyers. Many of them still love Sun and love Scott’s zany style. He needs more product – at better prices.

  5. Nyquist Capital

    Sun wants to “Change the Planet”

    Last week it was open source, this week Sun (Symbol: sunw) wants to change the planet. Unfortunately it is starting to look like they are focused on a head to head hardware dual with Intel.

    Nicolas Carr writes about the opportunity for low-power ente…

  6. Samba Pedapalli

    Why is it that everything runs on electricity and the apetite never seems to recede. I have always had the problem with using todays gadgets especially when the amount of heat they generate. Eg: cell phones – after using them for few minutes (5 min), they heat up so much that if you are not using your headset, you can see the ear being roasted.

    Sun has taken the right step that every hardware manufacturer should be taking.

    For corporates, I believe there is no proper mechanism to track down these costs(indirect cost) and typically is not a priority when budgeting.

  7. Computerworld Blogs

    Intel hates MIT, battery RTFM (and time waster)

    In today’s IT Blogwatch, we look at how Intel hates MIT’s $100 laptop with a passion, and peer into the murky world of the latest battery tech. Not to mention today’s annoyingly addictive time waster [I have horrible visions of offices around the world ec

  8. Kitty Wells

    Excellent commentary on Sun’s laudable identification of and action on the IT industry’s energy crisis. They have some real value here — both in the way they design products and run their own operations. Time will tell if they maintain a strong position on eco-responsibility or if it perishes as just another “marketing message du jour.”

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