Microsoft, with 70,000 employees spread out across the world, is deep into a corporatewide evaluation of how it can become a more environmentally friendly corporation. The effort encompasses hardware, software, data centers and Microsoft's role as a corporate citizen. The hope is to initiate Microsoft's people, products and programs into the green revolution.
Microsoft's early results include a PVC-product-packaging purge begun in 2005 that has resulted in the elimination of 1.5 million pounds of the environmentally unfriendly plastic, as well as a soon-to-open Microsoft data center near Chicago that is a state-of-the-art monument to energy efficiency.
As part of its green revolution, Microsoft also is partnering with such movers and shakers as former President Bill Clinton and his Clinton Foundation to discover how the world's largest cities can reduce carbon output and greenhouse gases. Microsoft also is part of The Green Grid consortium and Climate Savers, two industrywide power-efficiency initiatives.
In July, Microsoft put US$500,000 into university grants to stimulate research on environmentally sensitive computing, and is turning a green light on its sixth-annual Imagine Cup software development challenge; the theme for 2008 is environmental sustainability.
The green monster
The company's effort is not all self-motivation and altruism, however.
Microsoft was jabbed in November by the pointedly critical watchdog group Greenpeace, which berated the company for its 2011 time frame for eliminating toxic chemicals from its electronic products. Competitors Apple, Dell and others are targeting 2008 and 2009. After the criticism, however, Greenpeace lauded Microsoft for contacting the organization, updating its Web site with a list of banned substances and making immediate changes where possible.
In addition, green proselytizers have attacked Vista recently for its energy appetite and for the fact that many users upgrading to the operating system need to acquire new PCs and dispose of old ones.
To coordinate the proactive and the reactive, Microsoft last November appointed Rob Bernard to the newly minted position of chief environmental strategist, and told him to look at all aspects of the company and initiate improvements.
"My role will be to provide more structure, guidance and assistance in helping people think through the problems and challenges and how to address those," Bernard says. He plans to start building out a staff in January to facilitate the mind-set shift. "The real scale comes when we take hundreds of employees and get them to work on the issues in the context of their jobs," he says.
Results are mounting
Microsoft is getting results already. A shuttle-bus service for employees launched in September at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters takes 30,000 commuter miles off the road per day. More than 30% of Microsoft's workforce is in commuter programs or groups, according to the company.
A 2006 solar-power retrofit at its research center in Mountain View, Calif., provides 15% of that building's energy needs and generates 400 kilowatts of power at peak capacity. Microsoft's Quincy, Wash., data center runs on hydro power and the facility's trucks on biodiesel. The Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher program is turning out 5,000 refurbished machines for reuse per month.
Microsoft also is committing billions of dollars for new data centers around the globe that, although they use a lot of energy, incorporate cutting-edge power efficiencies. New facilities are planned for Ireland and Russia's Siberia region, and ground was broken in 2007 for another in San Antonio, Texas.
The company, which will say only that it has between 10 and 100 data centers, has used software to create a map of the world that aggregates 35 factors, such as power costs and climate, to determine the best places to build. The map is a living artifact that changes with world affairs, utility prices and other events.
The showcase, however, may be in Northlake, Ill., a 430,762 sq.-ft. energy-efficient building the company will move into in April 2008. It was built by Ascent to house multiple tenants, but Microsoft will lease the entire building to support data-center operations for Windows Live, Hotmail, and MSN Video.
While Microsoft will install its own green design inside the building, the structure itself has unique qualities.
"I think the real story with the building is the size and scale, the proximity to transmission-grade power, the dedicated onsite substation and the outside air-cooling efficiency. That is where the real sizzle is," says Phil Horstmann, founder and CEO of Ascent, which has been building and operating data centers since 1998.
The building sits on 12 acres and connects to the power grid at 138,000 volts, which is about eight times higher than typical connection voltage, Horstmann says. The connection provides a very efficient power supply and makes the building one of the most powerful data-center developments in the United States, he says. He would not reveal construction costs for the building.
For the inside of its data centers, Microsoft has come up with a set of design classes for energy efficiency and created standards around such things as server and rack configurations.
"It is really about how we take these designs and how they fit into the local area," says Mike Manos, senior director of data-center services for Microsoft. "Which design is going to give you the biggest impact, the most servers, the most efficient power with the most sustainability."
Up to old tricks?
Like all other service providers, Microsoft won't discuss specifics about its internal configurations and power-saving tricks, deeming those a competitive advantage that improves profits.
Those that have been on the inside, however, say Microsoft is doing cutting-edge work.
"I had an opportunity to tour their Bremerton [Wash.] facility and the raised floor system was fabulous for long-term flexibility, particularly in their industry," says Kath Williams, principal consultant of Kath Williams + Associates. Williams was president of the World Green Building Council from 2004 to 2007, and vice chair of the U.S. Green Building Council from 1996 to 2003. While she says she is not familiar with Microsoft's overall green plan, she adds, "Any step by any [company], particularly the biggies, any step is major. We are turning a big ship."
Microsoft's effort to influence that turn naturally extends to its software.
Vista's default settings for power management are far more aggressive than those in previous versions, and sleep mode happens much more quickly, Microsoft's Bernard says.
Power management extends to servers in Windows Server 2008, which will support a virtualization technology called Hyper-V that allows consolidation of servers to improve CPU use and provide real-time capacity management.
Bernard says such applications as Live Meeting and Roundtable can help reduce travel needs.
And Microsoft is extending beyond its walls. In May 2007, it began working pro-bono with the Clinton Foundation on a combination of software and online services to help measure, track and analyze carbon footprints in the world's largest cities including New York, Rome, Tokyo and Paris. The software, based on the science of the Local Governments for Sustainability association, is expected out in the spring.
"We can use intelligence and patterns and other types of analysis tools to help cities accelerate innovation around how they address this problem," Bernard says.
Microsoft also is tapping its partners to develop software to assist in environmental sustainability, launching in July a contest called The Ingenuity Point.
Bernard says it all adds up to one massive initiative he must organize and evolve. "The ultimate goal is to drive change into not only our products, but how they are built and used, how they consume energy themselves, and how they are recycled. But just as important is how we help the industry leverage the software to solve these massive environmental problems," he says.
It's a job, Bernard acknowledges, one that is just starting for Microsoft and the industry: "As a society and as a company we are still in the first inning."
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