Energy-efficient switches, servers: Is going green trendy or worthwhile?

IT professionals and vendors weigh in on the importance of energy-efficient switches and servers, and green data center designs.

Organic may be an overused buzzword in the food industry, but green IT has seen plenty of hype, too. Unlike health food enthusiasts, however, not every IT professional can base their purchasing decision on green claims.

The IT industry is taking green IT seriously, and it's getting easier to find energy-efficient switches and servers that can help enterprises cut down on unnecessary power consumption. While it's tempting for many businesses to choose a product that can save them money over time, going green can come at a big sticker price. IT organizations should consider the size of their environment, as well as the total cost of ownership, before deciding if green networking is right for their business.

"All things equal, IT should always go green, but don't paint yourself into a corner or buy into technology just to be green if it doesn't make sense for your business," said Forrest Schroth, network manager at Randstad US, an Atlanta-based staffing and recruiting agency.

How high are energy-efficient switches on the IT wish list?

Green networking doesn't immediately save enterprises money. Energy-efficient switches and routers typically have higher prices.

Despite those prices, Smithfield, R.I.-based Bryant University ranks energy efficiency as a very high priority when selecting data center networking components, said Richard Siedzik, the school's director of computer and telecommunications services. "We take pride in the fact that we not only manage our infrastructure for availability, but also for efficiency," Siedzik said. "There most definitely is an up-front cost, but we look at the whole lifecycle cost of ownership -- [including] initial investment, maintenance and energy -- when it comes to our purchases."

Green networks are about more than energy efficiency, he said. He also uses software that provides energy visibility, measurement and management capabilities, including Cisco's EnergyWise energy management and power consumption software. Cisco recently put its acquisition of energy management vendor JouleX to use by integrating EnergyWise energy management software into its switches. EnergyWise software within Cisco's switches allow the hardware to intelligently reduce its own power consumption and go into "sleep mode" when they become idle, said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst for New York-based 451 Research.

Server and systems management vendors are also helping in this area. "Our IBM servers have the [intelligence] to cycle down their energy consumption during low-utilization periods," Siedzik said. Siedzik and his team also use other vendor's software applications to keep track of energy metrics and trends.

Enterprises need to keep total cost of ownership in mind when considering a green IT strategy. "I'd like to own a hybrid car, but in many ways, it can be more expensive, troublesome and inefficient, depending on what you are using the car for," Randstad's Schroth said. "I get fearful of … added complexity and spending more money without a real return on investment."

Ripping and replacing existing hardware for the sake of going green with energy-efficient switches is wasteful, but adding such equipment as the refresh cycle allows -- without disrupting data center operations -- is a good strategy, he said. "Green networking is a great ideal, and one I think [the industry] should keep moving toward. Whenever I have a need for a more energy-efficient networking product and it makes sense, I absolutely implement [those products]," he said.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue a green networking approach is usually driven by the size and scale of the environment. Large-scale cloud providers, more than the typical enterprise, might see an advantage to their bottom line with energy-efficient switches in data center infrastructure, because if you consume less, you pay less, said Rick Drescher, managing director of technical services at Studley Inc., a New York-based real estate services firm. "The operational savings on electrical and cooling costs in smaller data centers with just a few racks of equipment rarely can justify a significantly larger up-front capital investment for marginally more efficient hardware," he said.

Vendors, Open Compute shed light on green networking options, benefits

Many networking equipment vendors are making energy efficiency a priority for their data center products. Arista Networks has designed its products for energy efficiency since the company's inception, said Martin Hull, senior product line manager for Arista.

Energy efficiency starts with building switches that are flexible enough to work within a data center's cooling strategy. Arista and other vendors have started moving away from expelling exhaust heat from one side. Instead, they are building equipment with front-to-rear or rear-to-front airflow patterns, giving IT more flexibility on where the switch can be positioned.

Arista has also focused its engineering on minimizing components, Hull said. The heart of the switch is the application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) on the networking chip. Arista and some other vendors use Broadcom chips that contain a reduced number of ASICs and provide a high ratio of performance, throughput and features to power consumption, Hull said.

More on energy-efficient switches and servers

Energy-efficient networking upgrades can cut costs

Making the case for green networking

IT pros: Selling energy-efficient networking to execs

Energy-efficient switches are important, but they need to be part of a larger green data center strategy that includes servers. Unlike servers, switches and routers can't be turned off when idle. They have to be ready to receive and transmit traffic at all times. Idle servers, however, are a huge waste, said Tony Harvey, Unified Computing System (UCS) product manager for Cisco's data center group.

"Businesses need to provision to peak capacity, but it means that most of the time, that capacity is not being used at all," he said. Cisco has built capabilities into its UCS platform that can allow data center professionals to quickly repurpose a server when it's between jobs. The UCS platform can optimize other components -- such as fan speed -- to match the needs of the networking hardware without using more power than necessary.

Green networking goes beyond even server and switch design. Optimizing the entire data center -- including cooling methods, energy sources, and rack design and placement -- can help enterprises become more energy-efficient while still getting the most out of their hardware. The Open Compute Project, an initiative launched by Facebook to develop and share efficient server and data center designs, is making leaps within the IT industry, and many large companies and vendors -- such as Microsoft and Rackspace -- are contributing to the initiative. Open Compute has more recently expanded into data center switches, too.

Facebook says its latest data center in Prineville, Ore., is a model of energy efficiency based on the Open Compute designs. It uses outside air cooling -- among other natural resource conservation techniques. It runs the Prineville data center -- which is 30% more power-efficient than Facebook's older data centers -- at a slightly higher temperature to save on cooling costs, said Omar Baldonado, manager on Facebook's network engineering team. "Over the last three years, we have saved $1.2 billion dollars on our data center costs," he said.

The Open Compute Project encourages companies to share their data center and green networking best practices. While starting with a clean slate may be the easiest way to begin adopting a green networking strategy, many enterprises are transitioning to the cloud or are adopting virtualization, which can make energy efficiency easier to attain, Baldonado said.

"If I was to build a data center today, I would build it a lot greener than we did 13 years ago," Randstad's Schroth said. "As we move and replace components, energy efficiency is a big consideration."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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