The Data Center can be a Cornerstone of Sustainability

Many organizations, including US Federal Government Agencies and the Department of Defense (DoD), are continuously shaping their data center strategies as part of their digital transformation journey. Decision-making criteria often include impacts on cost, elasticity, security, operational availability, and mission resiliency.

Now, enter a new metric – Sustainability! Introducing sustainability into the mix may raise the question “can you deploy a data center designed for sustainability to reduce energy cost and CO2 emissions without sacrificing elasticity, security, operational availability, and mission resiliency”?

The answer can be “Yes”! At Cisco, we found that a data center designed for sustainability has an ecosystem that can be a catalyst for higher productivity and performance at a lower cost in terms of both energy consumption and CO2 emissions. The benefits go well beyond the data center ecosystem itself – they extend to other sustainability initiatives including supporting distributed mission operations, smart buildings & smart forward mission hubs, and grid & operational energy management. The bottom line is that a data center modernization strategy can be a cornerstone of two journeys – Digital Transformation & Net Zero.  We call it ‘Smart Zero’.

A Framework for Implementation

So, let’s look at lessons learned from a data center strategy that can deliver. At Cisco, we made our data center strategy a cornerstone component of our own sustainability journey.  Between 2016 and 2021, we consolidated from 26 to 16 data centers, involving closing some facilities and retrofitting others, to take over their workloads to provide a better workforce, partner, and customer experience powering our increasingly interactive global operations at a lower energy cost and reduced CO2 emissions.

Let’s look at how our lessons learned can help power your journey using a five-part framework:

  • Start with Sustainable Design – As part of our IT fleet management programs, we regularly replace used equipment capitalizing on more energy-efficient equipment that increases workload capacity with less hardware and reduced energy consumption per Virtual Machine. In fact, Cisco servers can support 312% more same-sized VMs per blade than they did in 2016 resulting in a reduction in energy (watts) per VM by 27%. In one of our data centers, we consolidated 37 racks of previous-generation servers and third-party storage into six racks of Cisco HyperFlex HX-Series servers and backup storage decreasing power and cooling loads by 59%.
  • Optimize Operations – Optimizing means doing more with less—less equipment, space, power, and cooling. The retrofitted data centers have the power and cooling infrastructure to support more workloads in a smaller space — reducing floor space by about 41%, tripling power density, making sure we can scale to meet unexpected demand, and consistently meet our 99.99% uptime target.
  • Manage Energy – Energy management is a two-part process – increasing use of renewable sources and monitoring energy efficiency. Now, rooftop solar provides power at our data centers in Allen and Richardson, Texas; Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; and Bangalore, India; and the Allen facility also features a 10 MW wind farm. Inside, we find savings opportunities using our data center visibility tools including Data Center Information Management (DCIM) tools for continuous optimization. For example, temperature and relative humidity data help decide where to add airside economizers, high-efficiency tiles, cold/hot air containment curtains, blanking panels, cool boots, etc. The Allen facility now runs airside economizers approximately 50% of the time. The impact has been significant – 8 MW of solar installed and 84 energy management projects have led to $3.7 M energy cost reduction & 17K tons of CO2 emissions avoidance annually since 2013.
  • Increase Asset Recovery & Reuse – At Cisco, we are evolving to a regenerative, circular model in which we reduce the resources we consume and the waste we generate. When data center equipment is no longer needed, we can reuse it, refurbish it to resell through the Cisco Refresh program, or use it for parts. In the five quarters ending in February 2022, over 1800 Cisco UCS servers from our data centers were refurbished and resold. Beyond the hardware, we have innovated to extend the life of our fiber cable backbone. Designed in 2007 for 10Gbps it has scaled to 400Gbps, by upgrading the optical Small Form Factor Pluggable (SFP) modules at the endpoints to reduce cost, CO2e emissions, and e-waste associated with re-cabling.
  • Practice Responsible Procurement – We take steps to make sure our data center suppliers (equipment vendors, colocation facilities, public cloud providers) follow sustainable practices. Our Supply Chain organization uses the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) Code of Conduct, which we have adopted as our own Supplier Code of Conduct. We use supplier scorecards to help measure and manage suppliers’ conformance to Cisco’s environmental and human rights requirements, and we are now extending that to our IT suppliers (storage, cloud providers, etc.).

Getting Your Journey toward Data Center Sustainability Started

So, it is absolutely possible! Transforming the data center ecosystem is a catalyst for your Digital Transformation and your journey to Net Zero. So, capitalize on Cisco’s experience and our data center solutions designed for sustainability to power your sustainable future.

For more information on Cisco and Data Center Sustainability, see:


Chuck Louisell, Ph.D., P.E.

Strategic Program Manager

Federal Business Development