Green networking is a buzzword that is tossed around forums and industry gatherings, but few people really know what it means - or perhaps, more specifically, what it entails. The term "green" is certainly broad, but it does encompass a certain set of core values that are driving tech companies in their quest to lower their carbon footprint. Substituting equipment, switching to the cloud and employing virtualization are all techniques that companies can use when they take their first (green) steps. What this means is that while green networking can pay off in a big way, it won't give IT warm and fuzzy feeling right off the bat. Here we'll look at the basics of how it works and how to put it in place, as well as the challenges it poses for IT.

What Is Green Networking?

Green networking is a broad term used to cover a number of different techniques for reducing power consumption in networking hardware and appliances. That can be good news for a company's bottom line. Reducing power consumption also reduces the carbon pollution generated by that power, preventing the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That's a bonus for companies that are looking to become better corporate citizens - or just appear as such in their public relations campaigns. (Read more about carbon footprints in The Carbon Footprint of a Web Search: Who's Green?)

How Can It Be Implemented?

Once a decision has been made to "go green," there are three major ways that a company can implement green technologies and begin harvesting benefits. These green strategies include device efficiency, virtual computing and cloud services. Using one, two or all three technique can result in substantial energy (and cost) savings.

Device Efficiency
The strategy behind device efficiency is simple: It involves replacing aging hardware with newer models designed to consume less power. Aging network equipment, such as bridges and routers, can suck up a significant amount of power. Also, some of these network devices can potentially be combined, or, through the use of network address translation, dropped entirely.

Another energy hog to tackle is the cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor. Newer LCD monitors use 50 to 70 percent less energy. They also produce much less heat. Multiply that by an office full of monitors and you can begin to picture the savings, both in terms of energy use and cooling costs in the summer.

Virtual Computing
With virtual networking, one server can take the place of multiple test servers, cutting down on energy consumption (not to mention office space). Virtual computing platforms are available for PC, Mac and Linux servers. Virtual device software installs on top of standard operating system software. A number of "virtual" machines can then be set up inside the virtual software. The software isolates each machine inside the memory space of the computer, automatically preventing conflicts and keeping things running smoothly. That's a scenario that makes both IT and upper management happy. For example, a Linux server set up with virtual software could host a Windows XP Workstation, Windows 2003 Server and Linux Ubuntu server all at the same time. Fewer machines mean less energy, less space and far less hassle.

Cloud Services
As with green networking, "cloud" is another buzzword making the rounds these days. It seems like everyone wants to move to the cloud, and for good reason. Cloud computing gives users the benefit of being able to access their applications, files and data from anywhere in the world. All they need is an Internet connection. Plus, cloud computing means that companies can access huge amounts of computing power without requiring so much on-site equipment. Companies can take advantage of cloud computing by moving physical machines, such as backup and applications servers, off the premises, thus cutting energy costs. (To learn more, read Cloud Computing: Why the Buzz?)

The Benefits of Green Networking

Green networking can cut costs and reduce a company's carbon footprint. Those are the most obvious benefits - but not the only ones. Businesses looking to self-label as "green" can promote the low energy consumption of their equipment and use this as marketing copy. Green is a word with a lot of power these days, so that in itself is worth more than you might imagine. And of course, businesses that keep a close eye on the bottom line will reap the benefits of lower power consumption in the form of lower utility bills.

The Challenges of Going Green

The biggest challenge in green networking is cost. Implementing device efficiency by replacing aging equipment with newer models can take a sizable bite out of a company's budget. Similarly, buying specialized virtual computing hardware and software licenses can come with hefty up-front price tags. Another factor is company inertia. Despite the benefits, many companies are happy to keep things business-as-usual, even when there are better ways to get the same job done. In the long run, however, the benefits of green networking tend to be ongoing, which means they generally outweigh the initial costs over time. And when it comes to corporate cachet, there's nothing like being green.