Switch Vendors Call For Green Measurement Standards

"Green" has become a buzzword in the switching market as vendors try to one-up each other based on the power consumption, or lack thereof, of their networking gear.

In dispute, however, is exactly how the greenness of network equipment is measured. But one thing many network switching vendors agree upon is that there needs to be some standard of measure to determine what's green and what's not.

"Green is becoming a very important area in the industry," said Inbar Lasser-Raab, director of access routing and switching for Cisco Systems. "But there are no industry-defined parameters. There is no one measure to say who is the greenest."

There are several organizations trying to nail down some kind of green measure. Groups like Miercom, Tolly Group and In-Stat have all recently offered different ways to judge who is green and who isn't.

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Miercom, for example, is a networking product test center and consultancy that last month launched a new "Certified Green" testing program to offer guidance to organizations looking to improve their green IT and business practices. The Miercom program is challenging networking vendors to design, develop and deploy products that lower energy costs and power consumption; comply with increasingly stringent environmental directives; reduce eWaste; and heighten the green effect of networking infrastructure.

In-Stat, meanwhile, is raising eyebrows with its recent study titled "Green Networking Equipment: Who Leads and Who Lags?" that ranked both 24-port and 48-port Gigabit Ethernet fixed managed Layer 2 and Layer 3 switches from more than a dozen vendors based on their fabric capacity (Gigabits per second) per watt. The study found that switches from 3Com, Netgear and SMC are among the most power efficient, while others like Cisco Systems, Nortel and ProCurve Networking by HP ranked quite low.

The Tolly Group also recently released a report comparing switching vendors based on resiliency, performance and total cost of ownership, and tying in the amount of power switches consume.

Lasser-Raab, who said Cisco's Catalyst switches were among the first to be green certified for Miercom, said the Green Certification is a step in the right direction because it takes into consideration several facets of what's required to make a solution green.

The Miercom Green Certification is powered by Ixia, an IP performance test system and service verification platform for IP infrastructure and services. The Ixia solution can fully load and exercise Layer 2 through Layer 7 network elements and infrastructures and emulate real-world data center application traffic, from which Ixia can test multiple application profiles to offer an accurate benchmark of power per performance.

Miercom has said the Certified Green program will combine detailed measurement criteria with a holistic view of product impact in enabling green IT and business practices of network operators. The program will certify products based on power efficiency, including power usage and management, heat dissipation, cooling requirements, energy efficiency and overall product efficiency.

For Nortel Networks, green testing is a step in the right direction as green becomes a major focal point for vendors, VARs and customers. Jake Power, director of marketing for converged data networks for the Toronto-based vendor, said consistent testing standards are becoming a necessity to provide insight into greenness.

"Everyone's jumping on the bandwagon that this needs to be done," Power said. "I'd like to see some sort of testing standards. More and more realistic testing has to be done. It's been unbelievable to me how much of this [greenness] has grown into a life of its own."

Nortel has recently launched a massive green campaign to promote its self-proclaimed environmentally friendly networking gear. The vendor took out full-page ads in national U.S. newspapers and strongly promoted its energy efficiency calculator, which Nortel debuted at VoiceCon Orlando 2008, a tool that measures power consumption and cooling metrics of its own solutions versus solutions from other vendors, like Cisco.

"We're pushing the energy efficiency point of view," Power said. "Nortel is relying on its message of resiliency, performance, total cost of ownership and energy efficiency to get the green word out. Let's get out there and push this bold message."

Power pointed to the recent Tolly Group report that concluded Nortel Power over Ethernet switches were among the greenest in the market place, often proving to be 50 percent " give or take " more energy efficient than devices from its competitors.

NEXT: Which Switches Are Greenest?

While In-Stat's study is causing a stir by pointing out that many vendors' green messages may not be all they're cracked up to be, vendors have collectively agreed that such studies are beneficial, because they draw attention to the issues. However, many have taken exception to how the In-Stat rankings were tabulated.

According to the In-Stat report, Nortel 24-port switches offered a hair over 0.50 Gbps per watt and 48-port switches offered about 1.4 Gbps per watt, putting Nortel toward the bottom of the pack when it comes to power efficiency.

Nortel's Power, however, said In-Stat's findings need to be taken with a grain of salt, because the report was not based on real-world tests and amounts to an "apples to oranges" comparison. He added that a number of the products rated by In-Stat run the gamut between enterprise, SMB and home networking switches and true comparisons cannot be made.

"It's purely a data sheet analysis. That's not a real comparison," he said. "Someone needs to test like for like. It's not like we'd ever come up against D-Link in a bid."

Foundry Networks, which hit near the bottom of the heap in the In-Stat study with about 1.10 Gbps per watt for its 48-port switches and last for 24-port switches with about 0.40 Gbps per watt, agreed that the comparisons were too broad. One Foundry spokesman said In-Stat's comparisons were like "comparing a Formula One car to a Prius."

"Non-enterprise class products and enterprise/service provider grade products are compared equally here," the Foundry spokesman said. "SOHO and small business switches are inherently going to use less power, they perform less function, less performance, less reliability, etc."

Victoria Fodale, In-Stat senior analyst and the report's co-author, however, said the report is intended to spark dialogue and generate discussions on green networking, something that has been hammered home on the server and data center side, but not yet with switching.

"This was seen as a starting point, not an end all. There's no clear starting point for end users to gauge this," she said, adding that In-Stat's data sheet audit to rate power efficiency has already created a stir. "We expected this reaction and wanted to provoke a dialogue."

In-Stat research analyst Scott Scherer agreed. He added, however, that In-Stat compared data sheets for high performance fixed switches to keep the results consistent. He said the results showed the most effective way to objectively measure power consumption on paper.

"It's not to rate the vendors," Scherer said.

Fodale added: "When we started this, we didn't know where [the vendors] would fall."

And while vendors may see In-Stat's results as skewed, Power said studies like In-Stat's can act as a rallying cry for vendors to put some kind of metrics in place for measuring how green switches are.

For its part, Nortel will be launching a channel program around its energy efficiency calculator, which will enable partners to perform energy audits for customers to show them where they can save money and cut down on energy use.

"In that case, the customer has nothing to lose," Power said. "The channels are all over [green], they're hearing from their customers."

Cisco's Lasser-Raab agreed, saying In-Stat's study is a valuable tool to draw attention to green issues, but more work needs to be done to determine how to accurately measure what is green. According to In-Stat, Cisco ranked last out of 13 vendors in the 48-port category with less than one half Gbps per watt and penultimate in the 24-port category with similar numbers.

"How much power the switches uses the amount of power that a switch uses is just one measure of power efficiency; there is a bigger picture," Lasser-Raab said.

Lasser-Raab said power efficiency is just one consideration of the overall green picture. She said other factors like cooling, heating and power management must come into play to truly determine how efficient a switch operates. Additionally, she said, the services integrated per device and the extended services life a switch can offer must also come into play.

"We're not comparing apples to apples here," Lasser-Raab said of the study, pointing to Miercom and its Green Certification.

Lasser-Raab added however that In-Stat's study is drawing attention and creating awareness in the industry that green solutions are becoming a necessity, and that is a good sign that the industry is starting to wake up.

NEXT: More Calls For Green Measurement Standards

"Vendors are wondering how to make their solutions more green and looking into how to create mindshare and awareness around green issues," she said. "This is bringing awareness."

ProCurve global director of sales and marketing Mark Thompson agreed.

ProCurve, like Cisco, ranked poorly for power consumption with In-Stat indicating that 24-port ProCurve switches offer roughly 0.60 Gbps per watt and its 48-port switches offer around 0.80 Gbps per watt. According to In-Stat, ProCurve ranked eleventh out of 13 vendors in the 24-port category and twelfth out of 13 for 48-port switches.

"It's great that people care about this, but the industry lacks a standardized way of measuring," Thompson said, adding that In-Stat ranked vendors based on what they list on their data sheets, for which ProCurve quotes the worst-case power draw. Thompson said that worst case scenario is often "very different than real life experience."

"There's a big difference between power when a switch is turned on and sitting there than when there are several devices connected," Thompson continued.

Like Cisco's Lasser-Raab, however, Thompson said there needs to be benchmark levels to compare exactly how green switches are. Internally, he said, ProCurve and its parent HP are working diligently to drive green initiatives.

"Outside of power I think the right things are going on," Thompson said. "On the power front we need standardized definitions of how power is judged and do that in terms of how it's applicable in certain environments."

Measuring a gigabit of switch capacity per watt drawn, Thompson said, isn't the right approach.

"You could have the largest engine in your car but you still have to put gas in it," he said. "You have to get from point A to point B whether you're driving a Hummer or a Honda Fit."

Like the others, Force 10 Networks also called for an apples to apples comparison.

"In general, Force 10 believes that the concept of green networking equipment is a bit misleading," said Stephen Garrison, Force 10's vice president of marketing. "Networking equipment requires power and as new features are added, such as PoE, or system density increases, even more power is needed. What Force 10 aims to do is provide the tools that can help customers optimize their power needs for their unique requirements. We do this at the system architecture level with unique management features as well as at the design level."

Garrison highlighted Force 10's C300, an eight-slot chassis with an advanced power management system that allows customers to optimize power needs on a per port basis. He said the C300 fits into green strategies.

"Rather than delivering 15.4 watts of power to every port on a single PoE-enabled line card, customers can specify power to each port, reducing consumption and optimizing available power in the wiring closet," he said. "Additionally, the C300 features a passive copper backplane, further reducing power required to run the switch."

Both In-Stat's Scherer and Fodale agreed that some sort of green measurement standard is needed and noted that the report was intended to give end customers some guidance when they're making switching decisions.

"There's a lack of a standard of how they provide measure on their products and data sheets," Fodale said. "It's going to take a while to get to that point. There's a lot of factors that go into the vendors' green scores and it's really hard for the customer to get a true comparison. We want to keep having a dialog. We understand this is going to take a while."

Regardless of the testing methods, switching vendors agreed that studies like In-Stat's and certifications like Miercom's are going to continue to highlight the need for solutions that consume less power and run more efficiently, and they'll act as a catalyst for vendors to fine tune their green initiatives.

"We're seeing more interest and more requirements and we're seeing progress in green as a consideration," Lasser-Raab said. "We're seeing a very strong trend. If we can see a report of true testing that compares power consumption and other factors, we'll be on the right track. We need more accurate testing based on benchmarks."

A spokesman from Extreme Networks summed it up like this: "The bottom line is that independent testing is the only way to achieve an accurate ranking of what different switches consume."