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Taking a different measure

Akamai Technologies is keeping a careful eye on its greenhouse emissions

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By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / October 14, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — Like a NASA control room tracking a spacecraft, Akamai Technologies Inc.’s Network Operations Command Center in Kendall Square monitors the moment-to-moment state of the Internet from a variety of vantage points: page views, media streams, bytes delivered. But over the last two years, the firm has been focused on a measure that doesn’t show up on standard Internet traffic reports: greenhouse gas emissions.

Akamai, which operates 70,000 servers to handle peak Internet traffic for hundreds of firms, from ESPN to Best Buy, is in the midst of an intensive effort to measure the carbon footprint of its operations. In addition to revenues and profits, its most recent annual report devoted considerable space to the pounds of CO2 emissions it generated.

In May, the company submitted a detailed accounting to the Carbon Disclosure Project, an independent, not-for-profit organization that maintains the largest database of corporate climate change information in the world.

“Carbon emissions are now a core part of how we measure ourselves as a company,’’ said chief executive Paul Sagan.

Akamai’s efforts are unusual in the Internet industry, which has long been credited with positive environmental impact in a variety of ways, from reducing trips to the bookstore, the bank, and dozens of other brick-and-mortar locations, to the remote administration of “smart’’ buildings through Internet connectivity, to allow more finely calibrated interior climate control.

But a few years ago, Sagan said, he realized carbon emissions “weren’t always going to be tomorrow’s problem,’’ a conclusion drawn from his longstanding interest in environmental causes.

“I’d say half of my rationale was altruistic,’’ he added, “but I was also thinking that the day was going to come when our customers were going to expect us to report our carbon footprint, and their carbon footprint, on our network.’’

In mid-2008, to move the idea beyond “a CEO hobby,’’ Sagan said, he asked Akamai engineer Nicole Peill-Moelter to add the role of “sustainability manager’’ to her responsibilities. Before coming to Akamai, Peill-Moelter had earned a doctorate in environmental engineering science, and was looking for a way back to the field.

Her first task was simple: figure out where the company was spending its energy.

“At first I thought company travel would be the biggest factor,’’ she recalled, adding that Akamai employees traveled more than 13 million miles in 2008.

Another possible culprit was the company’s widespread physical plant. Akamai’s roughly 2,000 employees are spread through 25 offices around the globe.

But Peill-Moelter discovered, to her surprise, that the largest contribution to Akamai’s carbon footprint was its network operations: tens of thousands of servers located in data centers in more than 70 countries.

“Network operations contributed to 86 percent of our total carbon footprint,’’ she said.

Once the company learned that its carbon footprint was “all about our network,’’ as Sagan recalled, he launched a companywide sustainability initiative. Akamai engineers started an aggressive campaign to upgrade older servers and improve maintenance to keep the equipment operating at peak efficiency. The company replaced network server hard drives with smaller disk drives and solid state equipment that used less power, thus requiring less cooling.

Akamai also instituted tighter management controls, so that engineers could decommission or repurpose unused servers rapidly. Programmers even rewrote code so that the servers ran more efficiently, effectively increasing the capacity of the network without adding hardware.

“If we were able to squeeze 1 percent more performance out of one of our servers, we could multiply that by 70,000,’’ said David Belson, Akamai’s director of market intelligence. “That was exciting. ’’

And effective. By the end of 2009, Akamai had achieved a 32 percent reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions relative to network traffic.

Akamai has intensified its efforts this year. A prominent sustainability section of the company’s website details environmentally sensitive office renovations, improved PC power management, reduced waste such as discarded servers and phones, expanded recycling efforts, and even two-sided printing. The company now claims it will reduce its network carbon footprint 35 percent further.

Akamai’s energy efforts are now part of its marketing message to potential customers, saying that customers who use its services to manage the peaks of their Internet traffic will help reduce carbon emissions.

Christopher Mines, an analyst who covers green information technology for Forrester Research in Cambridge, said the marketing message makes sense. “They do have a case to make that their large-scale, highly efficient infrastructure will be more energy/dollar/carbon-efficient than what potential customers can do for themselves,’’ he said.

Melanie A. Posey, an analyst with the technology research firm IDC, said that company’s environmental pitch is effective because reducing energy costs “is just good business. It’s an important part of the cost puzzle.’’

Last week, as Sagan stood next to a stack of Akamai servers in the network operations command center, he acknowledged that the sustainability campaign “has helped our mindshare some.’’

But Sagan said that he expects that soon, corporate carbon reduction programs will move from “nice to have’’ to “must-have.’’

An increasing number of customers are asking the company to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions from their Akamai-related traffic, Sagan said, adding, “I expect we’re going to get a lot more of these requests in the future.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.