Networking and sustainability may appear to be incongruous terms. But, with some innovation, the two concepts can coexist.
Typical computer networks require gigawatts of energy and electricity every year to operate efficiently. For example, the internet — the most widely used network — is on track to use 20% of the world’s electricity consumption and produce more than 5% of global carbon emissions by 2025, according to a 2018 research report from Nature. Another study from ScienceDaily found that global greenhouse gas emissions from current information and communications technology estimate to nearly 4% and will only continue to increase.
According to Forbes, 90% of business leaders believe incorporating sustainability initiatives is important to business operations. For some, reducing their organization’s carbon footprint is enough incentive to go green. For others, lowering costs and gaining eco-conscious customers are bigger factors fueling their sustainability efforts.
These sustainability efforts are trickling down into every area of business, from marketing campaigns to network operations. Traditional network operations are incompatible with most sustainability strategies, so enterprises must transform their power-hungry networks into conservative, environmentally friendly systems. Many networking vendors, including Cisco, Juniper Networks and RF Code, provide services to support these green networks.
Sustainable networking strategies
Sustainable networking, sometimes called green networking, is a broad term for applying sustainability practices to network operations and management. Putting sustainability practices in place can help network professionals reduce resources and energy consumption while maintaining network efficiency. Sustainable networking isn’t a new form of networking per se; some approaches use new strategies, but other strategies don’t require the use of a new methodology.
For example, network virtualization and server consolidation are two networking strategies that create more sustainable networks. Some network teams have already implemented these techniques to save on costs, boost security or improve efficiency. Broadband- and 5G-enabled wireless networks are examples of sustainable networks because their use of radio frequency (RF) waves enables network teams to forgo installing expensive wiring and cables for connectivity.
Most organizations with wireless networks deploy them for convenience, as wireless networks are cheaper and easier to deploy and manage. But another benefit of wireless networking is how it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A 2022 report from the Wireless Infrastructure Association suggested that wireless networks can reduce emissions by as much as 16.5%.
Network teams aiming to simplify operations or reduce costs may inadvertently design sustainable networks. However, environmentally conscious organizations interested in building deliberate green networks might consider adding specific sustainable networking services.
Cisco, a longtime player in the sustainability space, has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2040. Cisco uses a mix of different approaches to meet its sustainability goals, said Kartika Prihadi, managing director of enterprise networking for Cisco’s APJC division, in a recent webinar.
Cisco also develops many of its products — such as its network and data center infrastructure tools, IoT, security, hybrid work and automation tools — with sustainability practices in mind, Prihadi said. Strategies include using refurbished hardware, sustainable packaging, power-efficient designs and environmental monitoring tools.
Organizations can reduce their environmental footprint by adopting hybrid work practices, Prihadi said. For example, having employees work outside of the office helps reduce factors that contribute to carbon emissions. Reducing business travel results in less greenhouse gas emissions because fewer people commute. Fewer employees in offices also means organizations need fewer cabling materials, which reduces waste and lowers power consumption in facilities.
Sustainable networking infrastructure
Smart buildings, workspaces and data centers can support hybrid work, which Prihadi said is the future of work. Cisco-enabled smart locations use the company’s sustainable networking infrastructure services. Cisco develops network devices with sustainable practices in mind, and some technologies used to enable this performance include intent-based networking and automation tools.
“Converging siloed networks that power, connect and secure buildings — and simplifying the design and operations — allows the creation of a more energy-efficient or carbon-reducing design that is more flexible and agile,” Prihadi said.
Juniper Networks entered the sustainability space with its Cloud Metro service, a new platform for MSPs to improve sustainability in network management. Organizations that have prioritized digital transformation (DX) are looking for new ways to innovate, modernize and upgrade their networking infrastructure. DX is often a double-edged sword because it can create both benefits and challenges for sustainability initiatives.
When upgrading a network, teams typically supplant legacy systems with modern technologies, a routine known as rip and replace. Ripping and replacing infrastructure is usually a challenging endeavor, and it may be simpler to transition to DX through the cloud where processes are digitized. Although cloud services can help reduce waste and carbon emissions, they also produce a great deal of energy.
Cloud Metro aims to provide an alternative path to DX and extend the rip-and-replace lifecycle by up to seven years. With Cloud Metro, service providers can deliver services and fix issues faster, simplify processes for network teams and improve productivity. Cloud Metro’s use of AI technology also works to disable unused features and conserve power.
RF Code provides asset management and environmental monitoring tools to data centers. Its wireless RF identification infrastructure tool, for example, includes sensors and cameras that both monitor and glean information — such as temperature and humidity — from a data center environment. Although designed for data centers, the tool also supports the overall network by scaling out into edge networks, wired LAN closets or remote office locations, according to Marty Johnstone, senior product manager at RF Code.
The main way RF Code supports sustainability is by providing visibility into the data center, Johnstone said. An environmental monitoring tool can quickly detect when the temperature of the data center changes, giving professionals the ability to correct the problem faster, become more efficient and save on costs.
“You can’t be sustainable, and you can’t measure something, if you don’t have visibility into it,” Johnstone said.
Cyxtera, a data center colocation provider and RF Code customer, has implemented sustainable practices into its network management, partnering with vendors that have sustainability goals aligned with its own, according to Thomas Cannady, Cyxtera vice president of network services. The organization recycles, uses refurbished hardware and digitizes processes to reduce waste and lower its carbon footprint. Cyxtera also uses monitoring and visibility tools to determine KPIs and measure the sustainability of the network infrastructure, Cannady said.
Cannady added that network professionals shouldn’t retrofit existing architectures to add sustainability, but rather design networks with sustainability in mind. Cyxtera has adopted what he calls a “build-to-grow model,” which means the network initially includes a small infrastructure footprint that grows as demand increases.
Getting started with sustainable networking
Despite the potential benefits organizations can gain from becoming sustainable, these practices have yet to become pervasive. While Forbes cited that 90% of executives believe sustainability is important, only 60% of companies revealed they had sustainability strategies, meaning more than a third of organizations have yet to go green. Some experts claim this delay will be to their detriment, arguing that sustainability is mission critical to business development and that companies without sustainability efforts will fail entirely.
For organizations to succeed in sustainability, they must prioritize reducing their carbon footprints — and can do so through a variety of methods. One of the most common ways is by reducing resource consumption wherever possible, including the network.
More forward-thinking organizations might already have environmentally friendly strategies put in place, such as automation, network virtualization and cloud networking strategies. Other organizations starting their sustainable networking journeys might benefit from using vendor tools and services that align with their sustainability goals.