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Sun eco-evangelist addresses data center energy drain

An interview with David Douglas, vice president of eco-responsibility at Sun.

CIOs dealing with out-of-control energy costs in the data center have been talking about eco-friendly computing...

for some time. But this week, Sun Microsystems Inc. has taken that idea one step closer to reality with the newly created position of vice president of eco-responsibility, naming industry veteran David Douglas to the post. Douglas will head Sun's environmental initiatives across the company, including advancements in energy efficiency and cooling technology, product recycling, clean manufacturing and improvements in Sun's day-to-day operations.

Douglas, who is returning to Sun after 5 1/2 years, co-founded in 2001 ConnecTerra Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup radio frequency identification middleware company, where he served as vice president of products and strategy. In 2005 Douglas became BEA Systems Inc.'s chief architect for WebLogic after San Jose, Calif.-based BEA acquired ConnecTerra. In his first interview as vice president of eco-responsibility, Douglas talks to about how serious Sun is about eco-friendly computing and when CIOs can expect energy solutions from Sun.

Vice president of eco-responsibility is a rather new job title in the industry. What prepared you for this job?
My interest in this whole space got started early in my career building supercomputers in Cambridge [Douglas received his bachelor of science and master of science degrees in computer science and electrical engineering at MIT]. We built some of the first air-cooled supercomputers back then. Then at Sun, I was really involved in getting into low-end server business, which was a similar process -- how to take these big mainframe servers and put them in people's offices and have low-power and low-noise solutions. It's something I've been hitting over and over and it became a theme for me in my career. On the personal side, I've been looking at my kids and the world where I'm raising them and thinking about things we enjoy doing as family. I've been thinking about how we make sure our kids have a great place to live in future. Is the VP of eco-responsibility an evangelist, a manager or an engineer?

All of them. Some people who will be reporting to me will be running specific projects. But there is certainly a lot of evangelism both inside and outside the company trying to raise awareness. At Sun, I'll help get a lot of the various businesses moving in same direction.

Eco-responsibility is a broad concept. Where do you think you will be focusing most of your attention this year?
There are two broad areas. Some of it being set by outside players, like the [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)], and the regulatory stuff happening in Europe. They kind of have a time frame of their own. Another big priority is internally working on our short-term and long-term road map. And there are tons and tons of other things to do, like "Bike to JavaOne." [During its annual Java developers' conference JavaOne on May 16 in San Francisco, Sun will encourage local attendees to ride bicycles to the conference. A local biking coalition will offer free bicycle valet service.] Environmentalists see virtue in an eco-friendly computing initiative, but why is it good business for Sun and for your customers?

I think it's a really similar situation to why people are buying hybrid cars today. There is money savings to be had by paying attention to energy consumption. And doing more eco-friendly things, there is a class of people to whom it's personally important to do that. Toyota is seeing customers demand eco-friendly products, and we're seeing the same thing with Sun, demanding our CoolThread processors. People are saying, "You've really hit something important for me going forward."

When and how did you realize that eco-friendly computing was going to be an important issue?
It is kind of something that has sunk in over the last four or five years, just thinking about the energy that's consumed in the data center. And then on the flip side, watching our customers use our technology to try to solve eco-friendly problems, such as designing better cars, tightening up the supply chain. It's a yin-yang situation, [IT is] part of problem but it's also part of solution.

Where is Sun strongest in its commitment to eco-responsibility?
There are a lot of programs under way. With just three days on the job, what jumps out at me is the product leadership right now with the new processors and servers and our work with AMD on x86 compatible servers.

Where is it weakest?
I think it's a Sun problem and also a bigger industry problem. There's amazingly little data available that decision makers who want to factor power into their decision-making process can really turn to. We are not doing a good job at this at Sun. Nor is anyone else. One priority is to keep pushing to work with the EPA to get visible metrics out there so we can be up front and honest about what people can do. Data and transparency drive a lot of things in this country and the world overall just getting the facts out on the table can do a lot of good.

What can you tell us about the formal metric for measuring the miles-per-gallon equivalent for servers? Why is this metric important?
It's a process that started up with leadership from Sun, the EPA and others. The goal is to give people an up-front, visible way to make tradeoffs and understand what the long-term costs are going to be for various technology choices. Today you go in and talk to people setting up data centers, there are a lot of back envelope things and an overdesigning of things for cooling just in case. This is just a way to say this company is doing better than that company (with energy consumption). [People might say] 'This technology might get me where I'm going at a lower cost for power and cooling and that stuff.' If you give people facts they can make better decisions.

What is Sun doing to make its technology run cooler and more efficiently?
A lot of it starts down at the chip and processor level, very low-level engineering. You focus on how you do computing with less power. There's no magic. It's just been the focus for awhile. Sun took a particular leadership position with the multi-threaded and multi-core space. It re-thought processor design from ground up. We're doing a similar thing with AMD, who we use in our x86 systems.

Will you be Sun's point man on the Green Grid consortium?
Yes, I will certainly be very active and we've got other folks in company involved already. I think that's going be a nice piece of technology, particularly around interacting with broader population.

Why come back to Sun?
A couple of reasons. There are still a lot great people here who I knew from last time here. And I'm very upbeat on the long-term business. And third, what I really want do -- what I felt like I wanted do in the eco-responsibility space, Sun already has some momentum. It has the engineering capability to really go and tackle these kinds of problems. If you look at Dell, for example, they have got to go get processors from someone else. We design our own processors. It's a big enough company and it's got a lot of horsepower to go and do some fundamental things.

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