Five ways to make IT network ecosystems greener and leaner

13 February 2020

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) have made it easier than ever to connect, innovate and do business; but we’re increasingly being warned about our impact on the environment. As we face a growing climate emergency, businesses want (and need) to learn how to use technology more efficiently, to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption and make IT network ecosystems greener. 

In January, Microsoft announced a bold pledge:

“By 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”

Brad Smith, President, Microsoft.

Realistically, few organisations can afford to take such ambitious steps. However, all businesses are capable of making small changes that directly, and indirectly, make a difference. As a minimum, environmental impact should be included in the conversation, sitting alongside other drivers, including finance, when making business decisions. This of course extends to the IT team and network ecosystem.

In practice, it is difficult to justify a business decision based purely on ‘being eco-friendly’, but fortunately many cost-driven changes have an environmental upside too. If you want to make your IT network ecosystems greener and reduce costs, here are five things to think about:

  • Consider cloud

The cost benefit: There are a number of widely-touted benefits to cloud, not least the ability to shed your own hardware and utilise the infrastructure of your provider. This eliminates costs related to maintenance and upgrades. Pricing models are flexible, on a pay-per-use basis, ensuring you only pay for the compute power you need at a given time, with no long contractual tie-ins.

The environmental upside: With cloud, resources are shared with others (multitenancy), so the energy required for heating, lighting and cooling systems are used more efficiently. The high utilisation rate of cloud means the same amount of work can be done with fewer servers, which in turn leads to lower electricity consumption. Virtual appliances can be built in cloud to replace carbon-heavy physical components. Some cloud data centres are actively looking to use renewable energy sources to make IT network ecosystems greener. If public cloud isn’t suitable, and co-location is necessary, there are custom-built facilities consuming renewable energies, including hydroelectric power. Many are located in colder scandanavian countries, such as ‘Green Mountain’ in Norway, perfect for natural cooling.

Be aware of: The lift and shift. Providers make it incredibly easy to consume cloud services, so a clear management process should be in place to oversee the move, and monitor the landscape once migrated. It can be easy to leave resources running when they aren’t needed, so visibility of your cloud usage, particularly over multiple environments, is essential. Data egress charges are easily overlooked too, and can quickly add up if not properly controlled. Read more about migrating to the cloud here: 5 Things You’ve Heard About Migrating to the Cloud That Simply Aren’t True

  • Find and eliminate shadow IT and duplication

The cost benefit: The obvious financial benefit of removing duplicate workloads is to avoid two bills for resources that perform the same function. However, there are hidden costs to shadow IT that can be avoided by taking action against it. Shadow IT via unauthorised or unprotected applications introduces the risk of data or governance breaches. The bill associated with cleaning up such an event can be costly.

The environmental upside: Cutting down duplicate workloads will reduce energy consumption, that much is clear. Oftentimes too, Shadow IT takes the form of a cloud-delivered application or platform, thanks to their speed of deployment, and simplicity to use and transact. Rather than simply ‘killing it with fire’, these alternative solutions could present an opportunity to retire inefficient legacy hardware.

Be aware of: SaaS, and stagnation. Software as a Service products are easy to provision. Without some kind of governance, you can quickly find yourself supporting a sprawl of applications, deployed by different teams. Consider management tools that provide visibility of network applications and traffic, so that you detect and address potential duplication. Shadow IT often emerges through a dislike of existing tools, so constantly review the applications at your disposal, in case there are better options out there.

  • Support remote network access

The cost benefit: Allowing flexible working through remote access is fast becoming a de facto option for many businesses. Weight of opinion tends to affirm that a remote working policy increases motivation and productivity, whilst also opening the door to talent that would otherwise be unavailable due to geography. A remote workforce will reduce overheads associated with running a traditional office space.

The environmental upside: A remote worker has no commute, which contributes to a reduction in the air pollution and carbon emissions associated with daily travel. They also use, on average, less paper, plastic and other disposable products. Aside from the obvious benefit to make IT network ecosystems greener for businesses, people also approach energy usage in their own homes with a different attitude. If it’s your energy bill, you’re less likely to leave lights on.

Be aware of: Additional hardware, reliability and security. Remote workers need a terminal from which to access the network, and the business will often be responsible for providing these tools. Consider the impact of buying more hardware, which will need to be regularly maintained and/or replaced. Remote access also spreads the network security perimeter, and will rely on the internet for connectivity. Are VPNs enough? Think about a zero-trust network security, with identity-based access controls.

  • Get smart with your energy consumption 

The cost benefit: Unless you have been neglecting your energy usage for a long time, it’s unlikely you’ll find a big, groundbreaking financial win here. However, getting granular with your network energy consumption can bring a series of small cost benefits, and they quickly add up. Find and replace inefficient switches, routers and hubs. Evaluate idle times, wake states and identify regular periods of inactivity. Energy-switching services have spread from the domestic to business domain, making it easier than ever to get a better deal for the energy you use.

The environmental upside: Taking steps to reduce the energy demands and make IT network ecosystems greener has a direct, positive effect on the environment as well as the business purse, be it through replacement of inefficient equipment, better automation, or building virtual components in the cloud. It is important to manage elements within your control, considering the relative inefficiency of the internet when traffic leaves your jurisdiction. No one entity is responsible for the thousands of data centers and servers that make up this ‘network of networks’, and demand is growing. All we can do is nurture our little piece, and encourage others to do the same.

Be aware of: Energy fuels performance. Refining network energy efficiency can affect response times and performance, there is an important balance to be struck between saving energy, and executing functions at the speed demanded by the business. Categorise your network traffic, and understand when OK is (and isn’t) good enough.

  • Reassess your redundancy 

The cost benefit: Many modern services including new, robust network solutions, provide redundancy mechanisms baked-into their products, and could present an opportunity to decommission or wind down existing in-house systems. Managed service providers will now take responsibility for your network uptime as part of their SLA, promising 99.9% availability, and offering service credits should there be an issue. Often, the cost to buy rather than build is far more attractive to the organisation.

The environmental upside: Redundancy mechanisms use a large amount of energy, even when not being used. Whilst it is critical for the business to have a failover for network traffic in the event of a component failure or outage, the advent of new technologies have provided smarter, cleaner ways of achieving this level of safeguarding.

Be aware of: Downtime and outage. No cost saving decision or ‘green’ initiative should be made to the detriment of your production workloads or your customers. Any risk of downtime or loss of service must be fully understood before taking action, and if you hand responsibility for your network to a managed service provider, you must ensure they are trusted and reliable.

It is important to note that all actions should align to your unique business requirements, and there’s no one size fits all approach. Shifting workloads to cloud, changing redundancy systems or replacing hardware should be done with great care, with the risks understood just as fully as the potential benefits. Don’t allow the solution to define the requirement. Analyse and assess thoroughly before implementing change.

Climate change
cloud computing
cloud infrastructure
environmental benefit
Shadow IT
Francis Bell