Cisco green plan looks beyond routers

Cisco wants networks to play a central role in collecting energy-use information from enterprise data centers.

Cisco Systems wants to turn the enterprise data network into an electricity meter.

Using open standards, the company wants to get server and storage vendors to collect and share information about their equipment and send it to Cisco routers and switches. The data could include power consumption, operating temperature and more. It's becoming a critical job, and because the network touches all IT resources across the enterprise, data collection should happen there, according to Paul Marcoux, vice president of green engineering.

Marcoux joined Cisco from American Power Conversion only about six weeks ago, after Cisco created the position to overlook energy issues across all parts of the company. Networking gear itself makes up a much smaller portion of IT power consumption than do servers or storage, but Cisco plans to go beyond just making its own products more efficient.

Power is a growing issue in data centers as the cost of energy rises and concerns about global climate change increase. Being able to collect and analyze information about power usage is a big part of the battle and becoming more crucial in the age of virtualization, according to Marcoux. Distributing storage and processing cycles without regard for power issues is not just inefficient, it's dangerous, he said.

If virtualization software looks at a process that requires more computing power or storage space, then enlists servers or storage devices that are near to overheating or running out of power, it could send a rack of servers over the edge and shut it down, Marcoux said. For that reason, the virtualization system needs to know the power status of all the resources it may call upon, he said.

By the same token, consolidated data centers typically serve many departments of an enterprise and consume a lot of power, but those groups generally don't have to pay for their part of the power. In fact, the electricity bill often bypasses even the IT department, going to building management instead, Marcoux said. Collecting data about the power consumed by each device, and eventually by individual transactions, would allow enterprises to bill each department for the power it uses, he said.

Software on routers and switches would collect the information and then take actions or forward it on to separate building management, energy management or virtualization control systems, Marcoux said. Given the large amount of energy data to be processed, Cisco may introduce daughtercards for its platforms to provide extra computing power, he said. He hopes the technology will be in place and collecting information in enterprises within three years.

Because data centers contain gear from so many vendors, open standards are the only way to make such a system work, according to Cisco. Fortunately, there already are several available standards, Marcoux said. Having standards already in place will help speed up adoption, Marcoux said.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, we're just trying now to utilize the wheel," Marcoux said.

Cisco's proposal would represent a whole new role for networks beyond communications, said Burton Group analyst Dave Passmore. Server vendors might go along with the plan, but Cisco can't count on smooth sailing, he said. Centralized power regulation would play a role in overall management of the data center, an area where Cisco is attempting to make inroads with other initiatives as well.

"Who controls virtualization in the data center is going to be the new battleground," Passmore said.

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