The New Accounting

When I recently blogged (here and here) the question of how much energy it takes to build a car, the obvious question is how about a server?

We’re starting to do a deeper dive on the complete environmental life of our servers. The big picture is pretty straightforward, and isn’t really specific to servers. In short, we’re thinking of six distinct phases of a a product’s life where energy and natural resources are used:

  1. Design the product
  2. Manufacturing of the product
  3. Package and deliver the product
  4. Operate and maintain the product
  5. Collect the product at end-of-life
  6. Recycle the product

I’ll be coming back to this list over and over in the coming months, but at this point I’ll just make some high level observations. First, the energy and natural resources to design the product are probably not significant for a high volume product, but for low volume or one-off products, it could be very high. By the time you spend server time on design, build prototypes, do lab tests, etc, this may be higher than the cost of the product itself in many cases. I bet this is true for the space shuttle, for example.

Three and five are interesting, as they include issues such as product packaging, shipping, and a number of supply chain activities. Number 3 may also include documentation and other things that are delivered with the product, but which aren’t the product itself. More on them in future posts.

Finally, there’s recycling, which is one of the most important parts of this cycle. If you’re involved in products and you haven’t read Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart, make sure to pick it up. Recycling starts with design - if you didn’t design a product to be recycled, its very unlikely it can be effectively. And its not just whether you can recycle, but how good the materials are that you end up with, and how much energy it takes to do the recycling.

I suspect that this will end up being one of the big differences between today’s product engineers and those fifty years from now. Between laws and social responsibility expectations, future engineers will be required to do a complete accounting for their products at design time. They’ll be far more attuned to the various material and chemical options for their products (and more, better options will be available, see here), and they’ll be able to account for the impact of their choices.

I’ll post more as we go through this process ourselves.