Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Friday, March 31, 2023

An Interview with EMC’s Chief Sustainability Officer 

Green Computing Report speaks with EMC's Chief Sustainability Officer Kathrin Winkler about the company's latest sustainability report, the major drivers for energy efficiency and a new way of thinking about IT's carbon footprint. 

EMC is one of the companies for whom green is not just a marketing message. In its latest sustainability report, EMC revealed that it had decreased its global greenhouse gas ("GHG") emissions intensity per $1 million in revenue by 40 percent since 2005 – achieving the company's 2015 target three years ahead of schedule. By reaching this goal, EMC is able to mitigate some of the risks created by climate change. Green Computing Report spoke with EMC's Chief Sustainability Officer Kathrin Winkler to learn more.

Right off the bat, Winkler made the point that, with regard to business priorities, some things don't change, which makes an interesting challenge for putting out a yearly report. EMC is in it for the long-haul, she says, and this means thinking about sustainability for the long term, the long-term impacts and the long-term dependencies. Energy and climate change continue to be primary concerns for the company.

In its 2012 Sustainability Report, EMC cites three energy-related goals:

- Achieve at least 80 percent absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2050 in accordance with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) Fourth Assessment Report recommendations.

- Obtain 50 percent of electrical needs from renewable sources by 2040.

- Achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases per revenue below 2005 levels by 2015.

The final target was reached ahead of schedule: EMC reduced the amount of global GHG emitted per million revenue dollars by 40 percent, from 32.47 to 19.09 metric tons. The company will announce a new goal sometime this year.

EMC basically has the same issues as its customers, notes Winkler: the big wins come from using the IT assets more efficiency. As an example of this strategy, the company points to its LEED Gold certified cloud datacenter in Durham, North Carolina. The site employs many energy-efficient technologies, including free air cooling for more than half the year, flywheel technology that eliminates the need for batteries in the uninterruptable power systems, and hot and cold aisle containment systems.

What's driving energy-efficiency?

A 2008 study performed in partnership with The Green Grid sought to identify the main drivers of energy efficiency. The findings are prescient of a scenario that is playing out today in datacenters across the world. The challenge is captured in a single sentence: "Most companies have been, are, or will be constrained in their ability to meet the business demand for computing unless they improve the energy efficiency of their data centers."

Most of the respondents cited environmental and cost concerns as drivers of energy efficiency, but a third benefit, CAPEX or CAPEX avoidance, also came to light. It's this third aspect that Winkler believes carries the most weight. Partly, this means not having to invest in datacenter upgrades prematurely. But more significantly, Winkler contends that when power and space limitations prevent datacenters from evolving to meet business needs, it's bad for business and ultimately bad for the world.

Sure there are frivolous uses of IT, notes Winkler, but multiple studies, including the SMARTER2020 report and the work of the ACEEE, have shown that most investments in IT have a net positive impact.

"If you think of energy as an investment or a currency, then investing in IT has a net return," Winkler explains. "We have to do a better job of measuring it, and that's something that we as an industry and we as a company are working on."

Automation is often the first thing that people think of when they consider the benefits of IT, but there is much more to it than that.

"I get that IT can improve things because it does automation, but that's only one sliver," notes Winkler. "Automation means things happen faster and with fewer errors, so that saves resources, energy, material, etc., but there are other factors, like dematerialization, minimizing travel, or providing streaming content as opposed to a physical medium.

"The part that can allude people is prediction ability," Winkler continues. "Look at the future of the intelligent grid. In some ways it mimics on a large-scale what's happening within the datacenter. As you have more sources of energy consumption and more sources of energy and you are more dynamic in managing it for efficiency and more dynamic in provisioning it's also a lot more complicated to manage. But it is IT that's going to allow tracking of the trends to understand elements like where the usage is coming from, where the energy sourcing is coming from, how will electric vehicles impact the behavior on the grid, etc., so that you can analyze and predict how much energy is required."

The final area of IT return coincides with big data. In Winkler's view, this exploding domain provides humanity with new knowledge which can result in novel alternatives and innovative solutions.

Winkler puts forth an idea, which runs counter to the prevailing wisdom, but makes a lot of sense: "If IT is a good place to invest energy, then it probably should increase as a percentage of energy consumed," she says.

We see a similar principle in the HPC world. Developing, building and operating supercomputers requires an enormous about of power, however those same systems have an undeniable role to play in solving the energy and climate crises.

Where does government fit in?

Winkler appeared before the Senate a few years ago to discuss how IT is contributing to energy efficiency. Green Computing Report asked her what she sees as the role of government in green computing. It was something Winkler's obviously given some thought to.

"I think the government can do a number of things," she responds. "First of all, the government as a role model and a large partner and disseminator of information can be huge because the government has a very large number of datacenters. The Obama administration has a goal of reducing the energy intensity of the economy 50 percent by 2030. The government as practitioner can have a huge impact. Incentivizing innovation and even inventiveness is important, without selecting technologies.

"EMC is working closely with EnergyStar and they believe in being able to demonstrate the energy-efficiency of our products but we want to make sure it doesn't advantage exist tech over fut or one vend over another vendor."

"We would like to see encouragement for reduced carbon content in the fuel that is driving our datacenters and in particular we think it's important to encourage transparency and partly encouraging it by being more transparent themselves."

The importance of government as role model is often overlooked, I say.

"We tend to forget how much the federal government is a consumer in our society," Winkler agrees.

Although the fact that they are operating large datacenters has been brought to the public's attention rather abruptly.

"What's even a worse problem is that they have a boatload of really small datacenters, and small datacenters tend to be really inefficient," observes Winkler. "In a small datacenter, investing in energy efficiency may not seem like a really good place to invest because the returns are relatively small proportional to the size of the datacenter but when you aggregate them there turns out to be a lot of potential savings."

Considering the recent reports of "green fatigue" among smaller datacenter operators, Winkler's comments serve as an important reminder that small changes can have a large impact.

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