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Network Switches to Become Energy Management Hubs?

When oil prices soared last summer, interest grew in products that could help companies curb their energy costs. While prices have dipped since then, the need for better energy management tools is still present. Consequently, energy efficiency has become a common theme among network equipment suppliers.Cisco moved squarely into the energy management arena with Energy Wise, a grandiose plan to collect energy usage information from IT devices, such as computers as well as building systems, such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Theoretically, the initiative will help small and medium businesses more effectively manage their energy consumption.

The worlds growing reliance on technology has lead to a rising consumption of energy, so energy costs make up a significant part of many small and medium businesses IT budgets. Most vendors have focused on decreasing the amount of energy that their products use. Cisco is taking this notion a step further and has moved into the energy management space. The vendor is not only concerned about its own devices but also anything else consuming electricity.

Because it is a grand plan, the project will be rolled out in three phases. First, Energy Wise will be integrated into Cisco Catalyst switches, so they can monitor the energy consumption of network devices, such as IP phones and wireless access points. The feature will be made available to existing Catalyst switches via free software upgrade that will be available in February 2009. By the summertime, the company plans to expand its reach to PCs, laptops and printers. In early 2010, the vendor expects to extend its capabilities into building management systems, such as heating and lightening systems.

The companys comprehensive faces some challenges. While Energy Wise energy usage information will be build into Cisco products, small and medium businesses will need to invest in management tools to collect and analyze that information. The vendor will also need to demonstrate that investments in such tools have a strong ROI.

Currently, devices, such as building management systems, rely on proprietary protocols to collect usage information. Some think that that the IP protocol is too complex and costly to ever be used with such products. Consequently, gateways need to be built between these systems and IP networks for data collection. One problem is there are no standards for such connections, and it is unclear which standards body  if any -- would take on such work. Rather than wait for such issues to be resolved, Cisco has teamed with Schneider Electric a utility management supplier, SolarWinds for network monitoring, and Verdiem for monitoring PC power to develop such standards. However, how much support these companies will receive from competitors is unclear.

The convergence of IP network and energy management systems has been talked about for many years. Cisco has outlined an ambitious energy management initiative to help address that issue. However, a lot of infrastructure has to be in place before these systems deliver their potential benefits. In the short term, the Energy Wise may be able to help Cisco devices. Longer term, it and competing initiatives, which are expected, may help businesses get a better view on their overall energy consumption. How long that process will take is anyones guess.