Telecommunications networks were built with a lot of things in mind: Resisting meltdowns if traffic exceeds expected levels, transitioning as seamlessly as possible from one standard to the next, and offering as many bells and whistles as it takes to retain subscribers in an extremely competitive environment.
One thing that networks weren’t designed to do, however, is to operate efficiently.
Creating energy-efficient networks is a steep challenge because networks are layers of functionality that pile atop each other over time, not unlike civilizations that occupy different strata of the same piece of land. 2G gives way to 3G, 3.5G and, finally, 4G. Wi-Fi is slowly integrated into the mix for a number of good reasons.
Unlike ancient communities, however, none of the previous standards disappear. They must be supported long into the future. This incremental approach is inherently clumsy from an energy management point of view.
Now, however, telecommunications companies are looking to radically upgrade their energy efficiency efforts. It’s a way to cut operational expenditures, protect against looming energy scarcity, please subscribers and protect the environment. That’s a good thing for their bottom lines, top lines and images.
A Serious Commitment
Network providers are paying more than lip service. “It is a serious commitment,” says Eric Woods, the research director at Navigant. “[But] it still is constrained by financial considerations. No telco is completely rebuilding its network along the lines of sustainability and efficiency, but they are looking to make improvements along the way.”
Last month, the GreenTouch Consortium released research that it says suggests that it will be possible to cut 90 percent of energy consumption by 2020.
Thierry Klein, the chairman of the GreenTouch Technical Committee, said there is no silver bullet. Rather, it is a reworking and reengineering of an almost unlimited number of items – some big and obvious and some miniscule and subtle – that eventually will move the needle that far. “There is not one single big thing that gets you 90 percent there,” Klein said. “It is a collection of ideas, architectures, protocols, devices [and other approaches],” he said. “A lot of things have to come together. There is not a big home run.”
While other observers see the 90 percent goal as a reach, there is general agreement that significant savings are possible. Tremendous gains are possible on big-ticket items, such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in central offices, cable headends and data centers; use of alternative power sources such as solar and; server consolidation via virtualization. These and other building blocks can cut power usage immensely – and quickly.
Klein said that one theme through all the research is that gear must be designed to not draw power if it is not in use. At first glance, it seems as obvious as not running the television and radio when nobody is home. But it requires the industry to confront the legacy mindset that equipment that is on and functioning properly is best left that way. Turning anything off is seen as carrying the risk that it won’t turn back on. Network operators must fight through that resistance. “Being able to adjust the energy consumption to the traffic load is a key theme,” Klein said. “It requires hardware that can be turned on and off. It requires intelligent algorithms and control mechanisms.”
Another easy win is in the rapidly growing wireless sector. Cell phones, tablets and other devices periodically query cell towers to see if there is data waiting to be delivered to it. This requires energy. Programming devices to ping the tower less often cuts consumption.
Underlying all these common sense steps is the serendipitous reality that today’s equipment is built from the ground up with lower power demands. Observers agree that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in the networking power sector.
A potential challenge is that there are so many intriguing and potentially fruitful areas in which energy can be saved that telecom companies end up doing nothing. The first step, according to many observers, is to find out where the problems – and opportunities for improvements – are. “The critical starting point is the audit, having qualified people do the analysis and ultimately make recommendations,” said Gary Niederpruem, the vice president of global marketing for Emerson Network Power’s Energy Systems business unit.
This is not a fast or simple task. Niederpruem said that an audit of even a mid-size central office can take days. “It looks at everything that consumes power and gives away heat,” he said. “Every breaker, outlet and piece of equipment, the lights in the ceiling, the ventilation system – all of those things have to be covered.”
Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside
Observers divide telecommunications networks in various ways. In general, however, the theme is that the plant – the devices in the field – is a separate category from the data center, central offices and other concentrated facilities – the places that have roofs. The outside plant is far more diffuse. The power demand in any single location is comparatively small and, therefore, reductions also will be small. Working the outside plant is even less inviting because the power often is being consumed in hard to reach locales. However, the sheer size of the access portion of the network means that it cumulatively uses amounts of energy, and that a lot of it can be saved.
Though the outside plant can’t be ignored, the facilities are key, according to Niederpruem. “You start in the core just because it’s a defined location, it’s easier to get access to and to see a relatively quick improvement or jump up,” he said. “Phase two can be the smaller incremental things in the core and areas of improvement in the access space.”
The cable operators use a tremendous amount of energy. The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) officially instituted a program, the Smart Energy Management Initiative (SEMI), in 2009. Derek DiGiacomo, the senior director of Information Systems and Energy Management Programs, said that there are three pillars to the industry’s drive to cut energy consumption: fleet management, outside plant and critical facilities. The trio, he said, are roughly equal in size and promise.
Cloud computing, and similar concepts that use other names, is an important energy saver for the cable industry, DiGiacomo said. Energy is used to send data – an on-demand movie, for instance – to subscribers. If that on-demand offering originates closer to the subscriber, less energy is used. There is an art and science to the cable industry’s version of content delivery networks (CDNs). Cable operators primarily employ CDNs to save money and to make their networks more responsive and efficient. A side benefit of CDNs is that a well-planned and executed CDN reduces energy demand.
The stars are aligning for telecommunications network energy management. Best practices save money, promote overall efficiency and burnish the operator’s image. And the indications are that the message is hitting home and the industry is accepting the challenge. “I think they are being proactive,” said Navigant’s Woods.