IT Thinking In the Box

Opinion: Alternative energy startups are worth watching.

What do the sun, dust and shipping containers have in common? All three objects were in the news for their application toward controlling the costs of IS, expanding the definition of IS and making information as easy to set up as, well, hauling around a shipping container.

Google last week announced its intention to outfit its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters with solar panels. The company intends to supply one-third of its electrical needs through the use of solar energy. The news would have been more beneficial to the IT community if the 1.6 megawatts of power were going to be directed to Googles data center needs as well as supplying its office power requirements, but that was not the case.

But while Googles use of solar power could be attributed in part, I believe, to grandstanding by a company with an awful lot of money in its pockets, its decision to use solar power should be applauded and seen as representative of the changes going on in Silicon Valley. While many of the Valleys new companies seem overly weighted toward consumer social network me-too sites, the startups that I think are really worth watching in the area include a new generation of alternative-energy companies. Those companies include SunPower (the majority of which is owned by Cypress Semiconductor) in San Jose, Calif., and Nanosolar, in Palo Alto.

CIOs would be well-advised to keep an eye on how Google manages its solar project and measures the return on investment. As energy consumption becomes more a part of the IT menu, CIOs and managers should now start figuring out how to make it part of their budget and project plans.

The second item that may soon appear on the CIO agenda is dust. Recently, Dust Networks, of Hayward, Calif., and Emerson Process Management (part of St. Louis-based Emerson) announced an agreement whereby Emerson will use Dusts mesh networking technology in Emersons plant management information networks.

While Dust has several competitors, and Im not out to endorse any individual company, I am sure that previously nonnetworked plant controls and measurement systems are about to be brought into the enterprise infrastructure. Security systems, shop-floor management and transportation (whether its a truck or a pipeline) really become useful only when they are joined in a larger network. Part of the CIO agenda for 2007 should be looking at systems not presently part of the IT network and evaluating what it would take to join those systems to the larger technology infrastructure.

Shipping containers and IT were in the news last week as Sun Microsystems outlined a plan to build a data center inside a shipping container, which customers could use for a quick data center build-out, disaster recovery or backup. The shipping container is proving to be one of the biggest business innovations of todays economy (for a good summary, read "The Box" by Marc Levinson), and those ubiquitous metal boxes offer an attractive alternative to custom-built data centers. The idea is not new; about a year ago, there was speculation that Google would use the data center in a shipping container to quickly build out its own Internet infrastructure.

While Suns data center in a box might be a little too far ahead of its time, the time is right for CIOs to think about how to standardize their data centers rather than constantly be faced with expensive build-outs every time their needs increase or a new business location is considered. Desktop computers are ordered in standard configurations, servers are ordered in standard configurations and maybe data centers should be treated as standard configurations.

The sun, dust and shipping containers may not be part of a CIOs agenda today, but they should be part of the CIOs strategic planning agenda for next year and beyond.

Editorial Director Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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