Pushing the Boundaries of the Sustainable Network

By Sarah Sorensen
November 11, 2009

The Information and Communciations Technology (ICT) industry (which refers to the full range of devices and applications that play a role in digital communications, from monitors and cell phones to PCs and storage devices) provides us all opportunities to make changes that can help address climate change issues. The potential is great - it is estimated that ICT could enable a 15% reduction in "business as usual" emissions by 2020.

Yet that same industry is also responsible for two to three percent of the world's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That's not trivial. And, as I have pointed out before, it only promises to grow in significance and scope.

As more and more of our activities are translated to the digitial world, we need to ask the question "Is the sustainable network unsustainable?" How do you balance 3+% of the world's emissions coming from a single industry with the potential to lessen environmental impacts of virtually every other industry? How do you slow down negative impacts, while accelerating the positive connections that improve our personal, business, and civic lives?

The key is ensuring exponential growth in ICT doesn't result in exponential growth in its impacts. The answer will need to come from the industry, itself. They will need to reduce the "in use" energy consumption of their devices and their lifecycle environmental impacts. These lifecycle impacts include the energy consumed in the device's development, production and distribution, as well as all the materials used to make and safely transport (packaging) the device, and the waste created at the end-of-its life.

There are a whole host of "knobs" a vendor can turn to improve the efficiency of their devices and the overall network. For example, equipment vendors can work to ensure the energy consumption of each and every device in the network is proportional to use. When it is in a hibernation or idle mode, it should not be pulling much power; as use increases, so should the energy consumed. This is an issue that has been addressed by many consumer devices (cell phones), but not the always-on networking devices - which tend to have only a 10% variance in consumption when there are a couple packets or a couple hundred thousand packets flowing through them.

The problem is that there are a lot of inefficiencies currently in the network. Just look at your home network (modem, router, access point, TV, etc.). Your DSL modem is most likely on all the time. If it is connected to a desktop, it will ping it periodically and keep the Physical Interface Cards (PICs) and other aspects of the computer alive, all of which means that energy is being consumed, regardless of whether or not it is being used - often at 60-70% of its peak power consumption. If the idle consumption could be dropped by just 20-30% that would represent a significant ongoing power savings for the home network, multiplied by the millions and potentially billions of households that could be affected.

Another issue, is the affect of heat on the equipment's reliability. To those responsible for their data center's operations, it will come as no surprise that air conditioning/chillers are the among the biggest consumers of energy in the data center. The energy draw of many devices, such as routers, switches, servers, etc. is actually the combination of its own consumption and the energy required to cool the device to keep it at a temperature that enables it to run optimally. Devices need to minimize their heat generation and/or be able to work "hotter," to require less cooling and less energy consumption.

In concert with the number of ways that vendors are working to improve the efficiency of their equipment, we, as consumers, need to start to ask the questions that will help us understand the impacts of this infrastructure. Then we should vote with our wallets when we pick our Internet provider or new smartphone, using environmental criteria in our buying decisions. (There are some firms, such as Synergy Research, ABI and IDC that have started tracking the "sustainability" of equipment vendors and network providers. There are also some basic criteria that can be used to evaluate and compare the environmental impacts of consumer products, such as EPEAT.)

We should also ask ourselves how often we need to refresh our devices - is it absolutely necessary to get the latest and greatest phone or can we survive a year or two with an older model (reducing waste and churn). When we are done with our devices, we should make sure to recycle them, so that materials can be reclaimed and waste diverted. (Sustainable Life Media uncovered startling business statistics relating to proper recycling of e-waste - approximately two-thirds of respondents reported their companies have a formal IT asset disposal plan, yet about 15% admit that their company puts e-waste into the dumpster!)

ICT can be relied on as a tool to tackle climate change and promises solutions that can scale like nothing we have seen before. However, we all must do our part and push the boundaries to recieve the maximum benefit and leverage from the network and ensure it's sustainable.

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