The network grows greener

Through evolving hardware and standards, as well as its broad datacenter reach, the network is becoming a green beneficiary and catalyst

Through evolving hardware and standards, as well as its broad datacenter reach, the network is becoming a green beneficiary and catalyst

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The network isn't immune to the greening effect that's touched the enterprise IT infrastructure. On a granular level, the IT industry is seeing increased energy-efficiency touching network hardware such as routers and switches. But on a broader level, there's potential for the network to be a vehicle of energy efficiency effort, an idea pushed by companies such as Cisco. And the brewing IEEE 802.3az standard, more elegantly known as the Energy Efficient Ethernet, could have a profound impact on reducing power consumption, too.

Let's start with routers, one in particular. If you read the Test Center Daily, you may already be familiar with the Anagran FR-1000, brainchild of Dr. Lawrence Roberts. (He's fathered some other impressive brainkids, including that sensational series of tubes we call the Internet.)

Designed to handle the new breeds of rich data that traverse network pipes -- audio, video, and VoIP, for example -- the Anagran FR-1000 doesn't look at data on a packet-by-packet basis; it looks at entire flows of data. That approach, combined with other smarts, means the router requires 80 percent less energy, with saves on power bills. It's also 80 percent smaller than other Layer-3 routers, according to the company, which can free up precious datacenter space.

Awake at the switch

Moving on to switches: Brocade is taking a page from server and PC hardware vendors in touting the relative energy efficiency of its switch lines. In particular, the company is boasting that its models deliver lower power consumption compared to the competition, but the company specifically calls out Cisco MDS 9513.

Citing a report compiled by ESG Labs [PDF], Brocade proclaims that its directors "have the lowest documented power draw at only 915 watts for 256 4Gbps ports and 1,150 watts for 384 4Gbps ports. They require less power per port (under 4 watts per port) and less power per unit bandwidth than any other vendor."

The company also says, for example, that its Brocade 48000 "gets more done with less power" and that, "compared to competitive directors, they generate only a third of the heat, require less cooling and leave more power for other devices in a rack configuration."

And in regard to Cisco: "With the energy it takes to run an MDS 9513, you can run a Brocade 48000 and power a large American home."

The secret special green sauce to its switches, according to Brocade principal engineer Tom Clark, isn't really that secret or special. He says the company has carefully selected the components, such as 85 percent efficient power supplies and more power-efficient NICs. "When you start with a less-efficient design, you end up with a box that consumes substantially more energy," he said.

The switches also employ front-to-back airflow, so the boxes can be easily racked in a datacenter that employs hot and cold aisles -- a fairly standard practice.

Network as a green vehicle

Cisco, however, hasn't overtly taken the bait that Brocade has set down. For one thing, the company has a policy of not talking specifically about the competition (though Cisco notes it does employ 90 percent efficient power supplies in its products).

But perhaps more important, Rob Aldrich, Cisco's senior manager of Cisco's datacenter solutions marketing group, echoed a sentiment that's raised time and again in the context of measuring energy consumption and efficiency for servers: Essentially, measuring power consumption doesn't have much meaning unless you're taking into account the work that the hardware is doing; that is, the service it's delivering.

"Measuring what sort of power per port a switch or router requires is a good indication of how to plan for power capacity," Aldrich said. "But if you take power per port to measure efficiency, you're missing an important element: power per port to do what? What does a particular footprint get you in terms of service?"

That's why organizations like The Green Grid (of which Brocade and Cisco are both members), Energy Star, as well as analysts such as InfoWorld's own Tom Yager, are grappling with meaningful "green" benchmarks.

Cisco, which has been quietly studying energy efficiency in the datacenter over the past year, views the position of the network as being "unique among the IT infrastructure segments," a notion it outlines in a white paper it recently published titled "Cisco Energy Efficient Data Center Solutions and Best Practices" [PDF].

In it, Cisco advises planners not to view the network in a piece-meal fashion but rather, "where possible planners should look to extend the touch of the network to gather as many relevant data sources as possible to monitor power efficiency. These sources include monitoring of power, temperature, and humidity... ."

The paper continues: "If an organization is serious about stabilizing or reducing emissions growth through the strategic application of IT, then it must consider all technologies. In the case of the network, given its ability to touch anything that consumes power, fixed or mobile, by definition it will identify more points of optimization than any other system."

Rated E for Efficiency

While companies such as Anagran, Brocade, and Cisco are demonstrating technologies and practices to wring the most energy efficiency out of the network, a forthcoming standard under development by the IEEE could have a significant green impact down the road.

IEEE Standard 802.3az, dubbed the Energy Efficient Ethernet, would enable network-connected hardware to throttle up and down between 10Mbps, 100Mbps, and 1Gbps, depending on the systems' needs at any given time. Lower speed, of course, means connected systems aren't working as hard, which in turn means lower energy consumption. (InfoWorld sister publication NetworkWorld has a good piece with more details about the EEE right here.)

According to Bruce Nordman, a researcher in the Energy Analysis Department at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs, Ethernet links are already capable of operating at lower speeds. The tricky bit is devising a way for the shift to happen quickly -- as in within 10 milliseconds -- to maintain connectivity.

The EEE could save $450 million in energy costs a year in the U.S. alone, according to researchers. Interestingly, the brunt of the savings -- $200 million -- could come from home computers, another $170 million from offices and $80 million from datacenters.

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