The computing industry likes to brag about how much power it puts at our fingertips, but what it doesn’t mention are the megawatts all those computers draw off electrical grids.

Jonathan Koomey, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, announced in a February 2007 report (funded by Advanced Micro Devices) that the servers and associated infrastructures that run US data centers consumed about $2.7 billion in energy bills in 2005. That’s as much as all the country’s color television sets and more than double the amount servers consumed five years before. Because of concerns about that consumption, demand from the public, new legislation, and scarcity issues tied to maxed-out grids like the one that serves Wall Street, green technology is sweeping Silicon Valley. Visions of promising new markets have Valley investors thinking in both shades of green—ecological and economic.

Tech giant Sun Microsystems is one of those firms retooling its business around the environmental movement. “We are reshaping our product portfolio to be more energy efficient and eco-friendly,” says Subodh Bapat, a vice president and distinguished engineer at Sun, responsible for driving the company's systems level energy strategy. Still in the midst of a comeback, Sun has a little more motivation than others. The corporation once touted itself as “the dot in dot-com,” but when it dot-bombed, 26-year-old Sun entered a wilderness of red ink and low stock prices.

Now several green initiatives are helping put Sun back in the black again. Project Blackbox, for instance, takes the data center—that room full of massive computers that runs websites and corporate intranets—and puts it on an energy diet. Blackbox is a 20-by-8-foot shipping container capable of supporting as many as 10,000 desktop users at a time. (Technically referred to as the Sun Modular Datacenter S20 or Sun MD, the Blackbox is still widely known by its original name.) The system takes up one-eighth of the space of a traditional data center, and it runs on 40 percent less power because of a breakthrough cooling system that chills and then recirculates air in a closed loop, according to Sun. The Blackbox costs less as well: Prices start at $559,000, with servers, storage, software, and services priced separately. A traditional data center typically costs millions.

Early Blackbox clients already include Mobile TeleSystems OJSC, the largest mobile phone operator in Russia, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a research laboratory. But whether the Blackbox catches on is anyone’s guess. Even though companies like Intel, Microsoft, Sun, and others have developed a global consortium called the Green Grid to examine data center performance issues, corporate computing managers are only just starting to wake up to the need for energy efficiency. Only 23 percent of the professionals at 140 large companies surveyed by Forrester Research indicated they were interested. The Blackbox also faces competition from companies like American Power Conversion, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

Still, Sun sees the Blackbox as part of an overall strategy designed to green its business, both internally and externally. The company claims its Sun Fire servers are three to five times more energy efficient than its nearest competitor’s and are the first ever to be eligible for a major utility company rebate. Sun is also using its history of promoting the power of the network and the virtues of sharing ideas through open-source software development, as a launch pad for new eco initiatives. These include posting energy usage and carbon dioxide emissions on the company’s website; reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions 20 percent by 2012; and launching the new website,, to provide free tools to help companies assess, share, and compare energy performance and tips for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

As it forges ahead, Sun wants to share its achievements because it recognizes that greening its own business, if done in isolation, would just amount to a drop in the bucket. “We’re small potatoes compared to our customers,” says Lori Duvall, Sun’s program manager for eco responsibility. “We want to take care of our own business and let everybody stand on our shoulders.”

Story by Dan Fost. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008