Rackspace Embraces Environmental Responsibility

As vendors push the need for green IT, user interest appears to be mixed.

It was in 2006 that officials at Rackspace Managed Hosting looked across the Atlantic and saw what their counterparts in the United Kingdom were doing.

Rackspace operates a sales and support office as well as four data centers in England. To offset the carbon emissions created by the technology, the Rackspace operation in England had instituted a program—for every new server the company deployed in one of the data centers, it would plant a tree somewhere.

For years, officials at Rackspaces headquarters in San Antonio had loudly pushed for greater energy efficiency in the data center. A longtime customer of Dell, based in Round Rock, Texas, Rackspace was critical of the OEM for its reluctance to adopt Advanced Micro Devices chips, which were more energy-efficient than those from Intel.

In 2006, Rackspace, to get Opteron-based systems, turned to Hewlett-Packard. Rackspace is also a member of The Green Grid, a consortium of industry companies addressing the power consumption issue.

So when Rackspace officials saw what was going on in England, it was a natural step to institute a similar program in the United States, John Engates, chief technology officer, said in an interview with eWEEK.

So was born Rackspaces Greenspace Initiative, a program rolled out in June and designed to promote environmental responsibility throughout the company—not only in the technology it uses in its data centers but also among employees. The Greenspace Initiative addresses everything from recycling to carbon emission offsets and feeds an eco-friendly corporate culture that starts with the CEO and works its way down, Engates said.

"I would say the U.K., and Europe in general, is ahead of us [in the environmental movement]," he said. "Having a footprint in the U.K. helped us get on board."

Rackspace is part of a rapidly growing movement throughout the technology industry to become more energy-efficient and environmentally aware, a push born out of both a desire to do good and a need to rein in spiraling costs associated with powering and cooling data centers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the need for such action is apparent.

The EPA found that in 2006, corporate data centers accounted for 1.5 percent of U.S. electricity consumption, more than double the number from 2000. If current trends continue, the consumption could double again by 2011, with data centers accounting for 2.5 percent. The agency says that by adopting energy-efficient technologies already in place, U.S. data centers could cut power-use projections by 56 percent by 2011, which would mean reducing projected energy costs from $31 billion to $17 billion.


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These are significant numbers to a company such as Rackspace, which has eight data centers around the world and is adding 400 to 500 new servers a month. The company currently has about 35,000 systems serving 15,000 customers, Engates said.

The Greenspace Initiative is designed to address energy efficiency in multiple ways. Rackspace is partnering with NativeEnergy, a renewable energy company in Charlotte, Vt. For every server that Rackspace brings online, the company gives money to NativeEnergy, which uses it to fund renewable energy projects.

"They figure out a way to offset the amount of carbon that were generating," Engates said.

In addition, a key project for Rackspaces R&D group, Rack Labs, is finding ways to make the companys data centers more energy-efficient. Plus, a 65,000-square-foot data center the company is building in England will run on renewable energy sources, Engates said.

As part of its green programs, Rackspace also is offering its employees information and programs designed to help the environment.

While all these efforts have feel-good aspects to them, they also help the company save money, Engates said. "I personally believe in what were doing," he said. "But if it didnt make business sense, if it didnt make sense for the company, we wouldnt do it."

Other companies also are seeing business benefits of going green. Hewlett-Packard is undergoing a massive data center project, consolidating 85 facilities into six. IBM in March launched Project Big Green to cut energy consumption both internally and among its customers.

Dell CEO Michael Dell told an audience at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Fla., Oct. 10 that the company is investing in ways to cut its carbon footprint and to incorporate better efficiency into its products. Through its Dell Earth program, the company offers consumers the chance to have a tree planted, for a fee, to offset carbon emissions from the PCs it sells. It also enables businesses to make donations toward the planting of entire forests. In addition, the company is factoring the business travel of executives into Dells overall carbon footprint.

Sun Microsystems, of Santa Clara, Calif., also is zeroing in on energy efficiency. The company considers it in all aspects of the business, including the products it rolls out, said Subodh Bapat, vice president and distinguished engineer for eco-responsibility.

"Our view is that energy efficiency is an important issue to pay attention to," Bapat said. "Energy efficiency is something to be considered at all levels of the stack. It needs to be a holistic, data center-wide approach."


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Through its iWork program, Sun encourages employees to work from home, with the goal of having half as many cubicles as employees. The program is enabling Sun to reduce its office space and power bills, and it cuts carbon emissions by allowing employees to avoid the commute to work. Overall, by 2012 Sun wants its carbon footprint to be 20 percent of its 2002 total, Bapat said.

While most vendors are pushing a green IT agenda, interest among users is still murky. A Rackspace survey from September found that more than half of those surveyed were willing to pay more for a green technology or trade performance for lower carbon emissions. However, other surveys have found a mixed reaction among users to green technology.

Anecdotally, though, vendors say they are seeing interest continuing to grow as power bills climb.

"Every conversation we have with a customer with regard to servers and, in particular, data centers inevitably turns into a power and cooling discussion," Jon Weisblatt, senior marketing manager in Dells Solutions unit, said in an interview. "This has become an acute issue now."

Mohawk Industries is taking a proactive approach to the environment. The flooring company has instituted numerous green programs—from using recycled plastic soda containers to recycling carpeting to reducing by half the amount of water used in carpet manufacturing—and is turning that attention to its data centers.

The longtime IBM customer has been using such technologies as virtualization and multicore chips for years and currently is in the middle of a three-phase program to address power and cooling needs in its data center, said Jevin Jensen, senior director of IS technical services at Mohawk.

"We are looking at new cooling and UPS [uninter­ruptible power supply] options but also rerouting cabling, airflow changes and electrical feeds," said Jensen in Dalton, Ga.

In addition, Mohawk is addressing what some analysts and vendors say is a key hurdle to greater energy efficiency in data centers—bridging the gap between the IT folks who order and run the equipment and the facilities employees in charge of powering and cooling the data centers.

"Like most companies, the power and utility charges dont hit an IS cost center, so we dont see the charges," Jensen said. "However, we have recently base-lined both our data centers in the watts and amperage loads they are using at peak/average times. We can then compare this after our changes and monitor as new servers are added."

Getting those two sides to work together is an important step, said Dells Weisblatt. Dell has begun working closely with Liebert, which sells data center power and cooling devices, as a way of bringing those two sides together, he said.

"The Liebert folks have a good relationship with the facilities guys," Weisblatt said. "This helps to broker a dialogue between facilities and IT."

At the Gartner show in Orlando, analysts encouraged attendees to raise their awareness of environmental and energy issues. Gartner is predicting that by 2009, one-third of IT organizations will include environmental sustainability in their top-six buying criteria for their hardware and services vendors; the savviest enterprises will stay ahead of the curve on this trend.

"Even if these issues are not big concerns today, I guarantee that youll be thinking about these things when you make choices in the future," Gartner analyst Simon Mingay said at the show.


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