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.