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Should Sustainability be a Network Issue?

Most IT departments set sustainability as a strategic goal, yet the network side of sustainability seldom gets the attention. Should networks also be looked at for sustainability? And if they are, what are the best areas to focus on?

First, let’s look at the idea of making sustainability a network issue.

There is a historical argument not to make sustainability a network issue—simply because the low-lying fruit in IT for greening its operations has always been in storage and server virtualization and in data center floor space reduction. These areas have been so successfully greened that there have been some cases where they have been able to fulfill an entire enterprise’s annual sustainability goals without looking further!

However, there’s a “catch,” these areas are getting tapped out. At the same time that this is occurring, more corporate boards are considering linking sustainability to CIO compensation. As this happens, it isn’t a far reach to see CIOs going to their network managers and linking network sustainability performance to network manager compensation.

Rather than wait for your boss to say that you will be evaluated for network sustainability progress, it’s advantageous for network managers to get in front of sustainability by looking into what can be done now on the network to facilitate green practices.

The good news is that sustainability for networks isn’t likely to touch network configurations or architecture at all. In fact, the primary avenue for network sustainability improvement is in the area of network hardware, which is generally straightforward to implement.

Addressing sustainability on the network

The most impactful way to achieve gains in sustainability on the network is through a reduction of energy usage. Here are eight network areas that should be considered:

Network hardware

The beauty of replacing existing network hardware components with energy-efficient, eco-friendly, small form factor infrastructure elements wherever possible is that no adjustments have to be made to network configurations and topology. In most cases, you’re simply swapping out routers, switches, etc. The need for these equipment upgrades naturally occurs with the move to Wi-Fi 6, which requires new network switches, routers, etc., in order to run at full capacity. Hardware replacements can be performed on a phased plan that commits a portion of the annual budget each year for network hardware upgrades.

Network resource sharing

Over time, companies accumulate a variety of computer networks that are distributed to user departments and remote sites throughout the company. There is a need in some cases to have discrete computer networks that are dedicated to specific business functions, but there are other cases where networks can be consolidated so that resources such as storage and processing can be shared.

A network review with an eye toward seeing where networks can be combined can reduce energy usage and reduce waste.

Network virtualization

Internal network traffic and support can be reduced by moving some business operations to the cloud. The move to Microsoft 365 in a cloud environment is one example. By moving more IT to the cloud, internal network energy consumption and hardware needs are reduced.

Sustainability automation

Network monitoring tools and devices that report status and issue alerts on network usage and that measure energy consumption in outside user areas and environmental elements such as humidity and temperature enable the network to make major contributions to sustainability for itself as well as for the company facilities, cooling systems, and user areas. Reports from these monitoring systems can drive policy decisions, such as automatic shutdowns of printers and desktop computers in user areas after the close of business. Automation can also be used to schedule jobs to run on the network at times of day when energy costs are lowest and when there is less load on the network.

Energy audits

Network managers aren’t professional sustainability experts—but local utility companies are. In some areas of the U.S., utility companies offer free onsite energy audits that can help identify areas of potential energy and waste reduction. Utility companies and energy consultants can also make recommendations on how to improve network energy efficiency and reduce carbon footprints.

Alternate energy sources

Utility companies have been integrating green energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro into their distribution channels. Many offer companies the opportunity to use green energy instead of energy cultivated from fossil fuels. It’s worth a meeting with the local utility provider to see if there is a way to tap into these alternate renewable energy sources that reduce carbon footprints.

Include sustainability in RFPs

Local exchange carriers, cloud service providers (CSPs), wireless carriers, MSPs, and ISPs all have opportunities to reduce their carbon footprints and energy consumption, and they can be encouraged to do more of this if their clients ask for it.

Your first energy reduction work might be to move more network processing and storage to the cloud, but these moves should also come with sustainability caveats in RFPs to prospective vendors. What, for instance, is the vendor doing to improve its own sustainability? And do these efforts align with your own sustainability goals?

Equipment recycling

Most companies have policies in place that “spin down” servers, desktop computers, and printers from power users to more casual users, to finally out-the-door disposal. This works well as a sustainability practice, but it often misses the network.

Similar lifecycles and disposal practices can be instituted for network equipment and power supplies to ensure that equipment remains current and capable of delivering premium energy efficiency.

A final word

If it hasn’t happened already, it is only a matter of time before IT and network sustainability goals land on the desks of network managers.

This is a great time for network staffs to take hold of the issue by making sustainability a network priority now.

There are many general IT sustainability practices that are working well and that can be adapted to networks. Networks can also add new technology and methods, such as placing network components into “sleep” mode when they are not in use.

By necessity, many networks must also provide 24/7 service, which makes energy consumption a continuous factor. This is why managing networks for best performance and optimal sustainability makes so much sense.

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