Burts Bees: What IT Means When You Go Green

By Ted Hein  |  Posted 2008-11-26

Being green is part of Burt’s Bees’ DNA. The Durham, N.C.-based health and beauty products company is committed to being a good steward of the environment. In pursuit of that goal, Burt’s Bees focuses on what it calls the “triple bottom line,” which ranks people and the planet alongside profits.

Established in 2006, Burt’s Bees’ ECOBEES (Environmentally Conscious Organization Bringing Ecologically Empowered Solutions) volunteer force develops and champions environmentally friendly business practices within the company and among its partners.For the group’s Energy Reduction Team, this includes looking at ways to make the company’s IT operations green.

CIO Ted Hein discusses how server and storage virtualization, along with other green IT initiatives, have helped Burt’s Bees accomplish this objective—and save money at the same time.

When we began looking for ways to make Burt’s Bees’ IT operations green, our data center quickly emerged as the biggest area of opportunity. For each 100 watts saved in this energy-intensive facility, we could reduce our cooling load by an additional 20 to 30 watts, magnifying our impact.

But there were also more traditional motives for taking a fresh look at how we did things. Our business was undergoing tremendous growth, driving the need for new application servers and ever-expanding data storage. At the same time, many of our existing servers were past their usable lifespan or needed to be upgraded to support our rapid growth. All told, we would need 21 new servers to support our operations—a significant cost in capital, as well as in provisioning time and effort.

Virtualization offered a clear strategy for reducing our server hardware consumption. Previously, many of our servers with direct-attached storage were either underutilized, such as our Microsoft Exchange server, or over-utilized. With routine monthly growth of 15 to 20 gigabytes (GB), our ERP system consistently operated at capacity.

Virtualization also promised improvements in reliability: Instead of having to invest in making each Tier 1 or Tier 2 application fault-tolerant, we could make everything on a given cluster fault-tolerant at no additional expense.

From a disaster recovery perspective, we could eliminate the need to run exercises on dissimilar hardware in a disaster recovery center (a nightmare of low-level device-driver problems) and simply leverage virtual machines as secondary servers—a much faster, easier and more rational approach.

We began by moving most of our core applications to a virtual server environment based on VMware. Instead of purchasing those 21 new servers, we balanced 53 virtual machines across a cluster of three highly efficient and powerful physical servers for a net energy consumption saving of 102,972 kilowatts a year, plus a reduction of 32,377 kilowatts a year in the energy needed to cool the data center. At that point, we’d saved enough energy to power 7.5 three-bedroom houses, but we didn’t stop there.

Virtual Storage

At the same time we were virtualizing our servers, we made the transition from direct-attached storage to more scalable and efficient virtualized storage. However, our initial efforts—which used high-capacity, cheaper Serial ATA-based network-attached storage—came up short on performance and scalability. That led us to look for a better storage-array network (SAN) solution.

We evaluated NetApp’s core storage system and data-reduction technologies and determined that these solutions could support the needs of our VMware environment and significantly reduce our physical storage footprint. We also liked the company’s approach to data deduplication, as we felt it would offer us more efficient storage.

Instead of the usual method, in which only entire files are checked for duplication, NetApp looks for identical 4KB chunks within different files. For example, think about how many times your company logo appears in documents and presentations and how much expensive network disk space that takes. This system locates each of those instances—even across different servers and logical disk units—and replaces them with pointers. It’s seamless to users and technical staff, but it can yield a tremendous savings in storage.

We put the new system through some rigorous testing—doing our best to crash the NetApp server—but it didn’t break a sweat. This built up our confidence in the direction we’d taken with both our virtual server and our virtual storage platforms.

Beware of “Greenwashing”

A core tenet of Burt’s Bees’ commitment to social responsibility is to make sure that everything we say is 100 percent accurate, and we expect the same from the companies we work with. We vote with our capital expenditure spend, requiring our strategic vendors to fill out a sustainability checklist. I wish I could say that we’re just being paranoid on this count, but the menace of “greenwashing” (companies that claim to be following green practices, but fail to deliver when it counts) is a real problem.

For example, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing’s 2007 study of consumer products bearing environmental claims found that “greenwashing is pervasive, the consequences of which are significant.” These include consumer cynicism, unfair competition and squandered benefits of consumers’ green intentions.

The same issue exists in IT: Companies fail to disclose the kind of hidden trade-offs that can undermine the green benefits they promise. They offer no proof for their claims. They make promises that are vague, irrelevant or even demonstrably false.

Although NetApp had passed muster on technological grounds, we also had to ensure that its operations were in sync with our sustainability principles. The vendor’s ISO 14001 certification verified that it had established a sound, effective environmental policy. We saw this in practice in its data center, which was designed for airflow and cooling to minimize the environmental impact of the systems.

In addition, everything the company sells is compliant with the Reduction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) of the European Union, which restricts the use of six substances in new electrical and electronic equipment. Reassured about NetApp’s green bona fides, we proceeded with the partnership and our implementation.

We outfit our data center with NetApp storage systems to support many of our core production applications; a separate NetApp system maintains a synchronous copy of our production data as a backup. In addition to the 53 virtual machines on our three VMware servers, the NetApp cluster also supports a file share with file and print services, a Symantec backup server and our Microsoft Exchange Server environment.

Though we focused on high-level strategies like server and storage virtualization, we also realized that we could do some small, simple things that would add up to a big environmental impact. For instance, we replaced all our old desktop CRTs with LCD monitors, a decision that made sense in terms of return on investment (ROI) alone, never mind the ergonomic benefits.

We also recognize the advantages of power-management software and Energy Star ratings on new desktops. And we realize that simple wattage ratings of equipment can be misleading in terms of actual consumption. But a “Kill-a-Watt” device, available for less than $20, can measure the power consumption of virtually any piece of 110-volt equipment.

In addition, we’ve found that real-time monitoring of electricity, water and air-conditioning consumption gives our employees immediate feedback on the effects of their actions and inactions. That can be a strong motivator for more sustainable and cost-efficient behavior.

Reducing the cooling load of a data center can be as simple as aligning cooling ducts so they support the flow of cool air into the front of servers and draw hot air out the back. When servers have been taken out of commission, we use blanking panels to make sure we’re not wasting energy cooling an empty hole. We checked the SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) of the air-conditioners in our data center and our offices, and upgraded from a 13-SEER to an 18-SEER system, which is among the most energy-efficient ratings currently available. It also uses an ozone-friendly coolant.

Doing the Math

The most enjoyable part of any IT initiative is stepping back and looking at how much you’ve accomplished. At Burt’s Bees, hard ROI for our green IT program has always been secondary to simply doing the right thing. That being said, the numbers we’ve seen have more than validated our program in financial terms alone.

Using virtualization to eliminate the need for those 21 new servers was only the beginning. NetApp’s data deduplication technology has also enabled us to reclaim a tremendous amount of storage capacity. Basically, when we provision a virtual machine in VMware, that means we can have 10 machines with the same SAN space as would be required if they were physical. This reduces storage by at least 50 percent and also lowers heat generation.

Combined with NetApp flexible volumes, the data deduplication has allowed us to roughly triple the effective capacity of the SAN. Beyond VMware, by moving our physical servers’ storage onto the NetApp platform, we’ve been able to reclaim roughly 300GB to 400GB for every terabyte of storage found on the original server.

The hardware and virtualization savings alone paid for our green IT initiative. The rest came with the solution: energy savings, improved fault tolerance, recoverability and performance.

Our previous shared storage system had run into trouble once we got past our tenth virtual machine, as they all started to hit the disks in different places. At this point, the NetApp system is ready to support even more virtual machines than the 45 we currently have balanced across our three VMware servers, so we can scale our business with maximum efficiency in both capital spending and energy consumption.

Virtualization has enabled our 30-by-30-foot data center to reduce its energy consumption by 135,349 kilowatts a year, including cooling. Replacing our CRTs with LCDs saved us a net 70 kilowatts a year per display—for energy cost savings of $191.55, enough to pay for the upgrade. Multiply that by a few hundred screens, and the savings add up.

So, though our business grew by 26 percent last year—adding volumes in production and staff along the way—our total energy consumption actually dropped by 3 percent.

Green Today—Greener Tomorrow

One of the most important things to remember about green IT is that it’s a process, not a destination. You’ve got to be alert to new challenges and priorities, and make sure you’re making optimal use of every opportunity. Green IT really means inserting a sustainability lens in all you do—from each strategic project to your daily support operations.

Our next steps include extending our investment in VMware and NetApp to the desktop by switching to thin-client PCs with no moving parts. These small machines require less maintenance and fewer upgrades, and they consume as little as 5 watts of power, compared with 50 to 500 watts for traditional desktops and 50 to 90 watts for conventional laptops.

We are also keeping an eye out for new technology that may result in an appropriately sized flywheel-based uninterruptible power supply to replace our traditional battery-based UPS. Further down the road, it’s our goal to generate all our own energy on-site using sustainable technologies like wind and solar. In the meantime, we buy renewable offsets for 100 percent of our energy consumption.

Our green IT experience has taught us a valuable lesson: It’s easy to think of storage and servers as a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to keep buying so much disk and server hardware. We can take advantage of advanced solutions that pay off in cost, performance, scalability, reliability and environmental impact.

It takes strategic thinking and perseverance to break out of old paradigms and embrace new technologies, but the ROI is well worth the effort. As energy costs continue to rise and new laws are passed, greener operations will also become a new form of competitive advantage. But, more importantly, it’s simply the right thing to do.