Salesforce's Patrick Flynn: IT key to improving data center sustainability

Salesforce's director of sustainability discusses bringing together IT and data center, finance, risk and sustainability to improve data center energy efficiency

Salesforc's Patrick Flynn
Credit: Salesforce

One of the fundamental tenets of efficient IT and its achievement is inclusion of a variety of stakeholders within IT and the data center. But it also involves engaging and understanding finance, risk and sustainability.

Patrick Flynn, director of sustainability at Salesforce, is a known figure at conferences, committees and working groups. His TED Talk, Mankind’s BIGGEST Story, is a compelling reflection on infrastructure and the internet in the larger context of history and purpose. Flynn is also a key proponent of the Future of Internet Power initiative.

I talked with Flynn recently to get his insights into industry initiatives and purposefulness in IT infrastructure and how we can better collaborate as an industry for a better future.

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Can you tell us a bit about your background and current responsibilities at Salesforce?

Flynn: At Salesforce, we consider the environment to be a key stakeholder. Simply put, my job is to help Salesforce define and meet its sustainability commitments. I have a varied background, which helps me approach sustainability at Salesforce from many different angles. I most recently led sustainability strategy at a leading global colocation data center provider, but I’ve also been an engineer and a cleantech investor.

You’ve been involved in an industry collaborative initiative called the Future of Internet Power (FoIP), and the group recently released a document around Colocation Buyers' Principles. Who should pay attention to this and why?

Flynn: We certainly hope that any technology company that leases data center space will pay attention. For companies that rent data center equipment and space, adopting a renewable energy strategy can be particularly tricky. While many of them are environmentally aware and want to do right by the planet, it can be difficult to understand how they should think about sustainability in a scenario where others are managing energy sources and usage. We created the Colocation Buyers' Principles to provide guidance for these companies to help them set sustainability goals and encourage their use of low-carbon energy sources.

It’s safe to assume Salesforce’s carbon emissions are primarily due to IT infrastructure operations. What is your characterization of the IT profession’s awareness or willingness to address sustainability concerns as someone outside of the IT/data center bubble?

Flynn: It’s definitely changing for the better, but we recognize that sustainability needs to be elevated within the IT sector. We are excited by the opportunity to be a leader on that. One of the driving ideas behind the Colocation Buyers' Principles is that sustainability efforts need to make sense for the business—it’s critical to think of sustainability holistically. We created a set of achievable goals that will move the needle. Today, energy systems are going through profound change, and the Colocation Buyers’ Principles aim to clarify and elevate sustainability in the conversation between data center tenants and service providers.

Salesforce is committed to progress on the “supply side” of improving sustainability in IT. Can you tell us what is being done in your organization to address demand? For example, how are IT teams becoming more efficient and resource conscious? And how do you assess and prioritize continuous improvement in this regard?

Flynn: Our core cloud platform is already 50 times more environmentally friendly than on-premise solutions, and by moving to the cloud, Salesforce customers avoid emitting more than 2 million tons of carbon each year. We also incorporate sustainability across our business. One example is our focus on green building and optimizing our office spaces for employee wellness.

The industry’s response to an updated DOE Report from earlier this year seemed to miss the point. For example the headline, “Data Centers Are No Longer the Energy Hogs They Once Were” does not describe the findings of the DOE report. It feels a little like the IT industry’s “Mission Accomplished” moment—seeking a good story to tell while the industry’s power usage continues to increase overall. What is your take on that messaging? Where are we on the path to improved efficiency and communicating that message accurately and clearly to non-technical stakeholders?

Flynn: There’s always work to be done. The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other new innovations are increasing energy consumption. If you keep per unit energy steady, a decade or two from now the internet consumes more electricity than all that was produced globally last year. We have to continue to innovate and find efficiencies because demand is only going to continue to accelerate.

Waste in IT is arguably worse than ever. When the first DOE report on data centers came out seven years ago, virtualization helped to leverage each IT asset, which tapered the original projected rate of rise of energy consumption in data centers. And the industry media and working groups rushed to declare "mission accomplished." However, Uptime Institute did seminal research in 2004 into the issue of comatose servers and established a 11-15 percent rate of "zombies." A few years ago, we revised that estimate to 20-30 percent. It isn’t better. What happened?

Flynn: The results of the most recent DOE study show a success story of flat energy growth. But in many ways, we’re still at the beginning stages of the journey. Over the coming years, we’ll see a flood of new sensors, additional data-heavy uses like video and augmented reality, connected devices and more and more data traffic happening at the edges of the network. The good news is that higher efficiency and higher utilization present some of the most attractive returns on a risk-adjusted basis. Financial forces will continue to drive them ahead.

Almost half of enterprises don’t have regular IT asset utilization audits, which is a major contributing factor to that amount of gear consuming resources and no longer delivering business value. Are we getting spoiled with gear and techniques increasing efficiency on their own? Can inherent efficiency dis-incent the proactive nature of good stewardship? Can efficiency perversely beget waste?

Flynn: It’s all of the above. There is no silver bullet. Usage is going to increase, and we need to use every possible tool at our disposal to keep energy use, water use and emissions flat. For example, we need better incentives for software developers to code efficiently. There is no “one solution fits all,” but at the end of the day, efficiency always wins.

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