A world in which networks stream feature-length Hulu movies to laptops and virtual worlds to PCs requires a whole lot of power to run the servers, routers, desktop computers and other gear that make it all possible. The electricity used by servers alone doubled between 2000 to 2005 to about 123 billion kilowatt-hours, and if current trends continue, data-center power use is likely to increase another 76 percent by 2010, according to Jonathan Koomey, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and Stanford University. But in the face of rising power costs and increased attention on fighting climate change, network hardware makers and service providers are starting to work on curbing networks’ energy use.
The first step to overcoming an energy addiction is acknowledging the problem — and in the IT industry that means launching industry standards. Last week, network performance testing company Ixia (XXIA), network gear maker Juniper (JNPR) and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs launched the Energy Consumption Rating (ECR) Initiative, an open standards-based project aimed at creating energy-efficiency metrics for network and telecom devices. It’s one of the first coordinated efforts to develop such metrics and could garner the support of industry players who’ve recently begun their own energy rehab efforts.
The Initiative is welcoming network industry vendors, service providers and other standards bodies to work with it to help institute benchmark metrics for how energy-efficient (or not) network hardware is. The group is working on repeatable measurements to report energy performance in units of “watts per gigabit per second,” a sort of miles per gallon for tech gear. The measurements are some of the most detailed out there and they look at energy performance in different states, from active processing to idle states, and as Ixia’s CEO Atul Bhatnagar said in a phone call, the goal is to be able to set standards that can verify device efficiency through measurement.
The ECR Initiative is still very much a work in progress; it’s more of a “call to action” than a set of instructions on what network makers should do. So far, ECR doesn’t have plans to label gear with an ECR certification to let service operators identify energy-efficient devices for purchase — Ixia’s Bhatnagar said it’s still too soon in the process. More than anything, it’s an acknowledgment that power is a significant issue for the networking and telecom industries.
Both telecom and computing gear companies, as well as service providers, have started to show signs that they’re interested in more energy-efficient networks. Earlier this year, Verizon (VZ) announced its own energy-efficiency standard for telecom gear, aimed at reducing hardware power use 20 percent, industrywide, starting in 2009. Ericsson (ERIC) partnered with a designer to develop a cellular network base station model that would use 40 percent less energy. BT says it’s incorporating energy-efficiency requirements into contracts with suppliers as it builds out next generation networks. On the server front, tech industry behemoths like Google, Yahoo, Sun and Cisco are all working on different ways to reduce data center energy use.
Why are network operators and hardware makers starting to jump on this trend? Largely because of the bottom line. For service providers, using energy-efficient network hardware can be a solid way to cut costs. Google engineers have famously reported that the cost of the power to run data centers is rivaling the cost of buying the data center gear; because the search engine giant uses so much power, it has a major data center efficiency plan underway. Telecom network operators could find similarly positive power savings with energy-efficient network equipment. For the network gear makers, energy-efficient products are a way to differentiate themselves in a largely commoditized industry.
And here’s one silver lining to the recent financial stormclouds: Energy-efficient network technologies will likely get a boost. Networking companies will be looking to cut costs even deeper than in the past, and that means cutting power use.