Conventional telco equipment might be negatively affecting the environment

This article was published in Digital Infra on March 17, 2023. You can read the original article here.  

Since the internet was created, the network has been built from software and hardware that are locked together. As we know, technology has revolutionised the world, from the way we learn, shop, educate and work – but it is also driving the needs for network upgrades. These upgrades often mean new, faster models get installed. But when software or hardware is upgraded, what happens to the old equipment? 

The short answer? It becomes electronic waste (e-waste). E-waste is one of the biggest household waste contributors, especially in the UK, which has been ranked the second biggest contributor globally, producing 36,681 tonnes of electronic equipment in 2021. When e-waste is dumped in landfills, it can have devastating impacts on surrounding areas as lead and other toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, valuable, and non-renewable materials are thrown away and lost when not recycled.

According to Hannes Gredler, CTO at RtBrick, the telecoms industry contributes massive amounts of e-waste every year and is one of the leading technology verticals contributing to this problem. “By 2030, there is projected to be 74.7 billion metric tonnes of e-waste,” he says. “That amount of material weighs more than the entire Great Wall of China. However, luckily there is an opportunity for the industry to come together and reduce our footprint through non-traditional ways’.

Breaking down heavy e-waste contributors

Legacy equipment is the main contributor of e-waste. “Since the beginning of the internet, traditional telecoms equipment, such as telco routers,  have been sold with network software and hardware as a single system,” Gredler explains. “This means that when the software is inevitably upgraded, the hardware that the old software was tied to will often go to waste.’

“These conventional telco routers tend to be bulky, expensive, and require significant effort to upgrade. If someone wanted to change to a new software vendor, for example, they cannot simply keep their existing hardware, they will have to replace it.”

It is clear to see that when software is tied to specific hardware it creates more e-waste when the hardware is inevitably thrown out. This is a particular problem with telco equipment, as you cannot really repurpose old hardware for another use, as you can with a computer, for example.

Drop the extra e-waste weight

Sustainability is increasingly at the forefront of business goals, and there is a greater awareness than ever of the greenness of technology and its impact on the planet. Like many others, the telecoms industry is becoming more determined to meet this issue head on and minimise its negative effects on the planet. As part of this, it is starting to rethink how its networks are built.

This is one reason why operators are beginning to shift from traditional monolithic routing systems to open, bare-metal switches, which are a more practical, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective form of hardware. 

“Traditionally, carriers have built networks using routing systems that integrate hardware and software from a single vendor,” Gredler continues. “However, network disaggregation – where software and hardware are decoupled – has made it possible to do things differently. Disaggregation, along with the use of merchant silicon, means companies can now deliver carrier-grade routing software that turns bare-metal switches into fully functional IP/MPLS carrier-grade routers. 

“Unlike conventional systems, bare-metal hardware can be re-used and reprogrammed with alternative software to change its function, giving it greater longevity. This means telco equipment becomes more sustainable due to a longer shelf life.” 

In the past, systems were built in a chassis with many interdependent parts. If one part of that chassis became outdated, then the whole system might have to be scrapped. However, thanks to disaggregation, open bare-metal switches can now be replaced piecemeal as needed, even swapping in equipment originating from different vendors.

What is more, this can help companies meet their wider sustainability goals. Under the greenhouse gas protocol (GHGP) companies have to consider their Scope 3 emissions – which includes those produced by companies in their supply chains.

“This is particularly important if a company’s current vendor is known for producing mass e-waste, as a company may now switch to a more sustainable supplier without worrying about the move affecting the performance of its network,” Gredler adds.

Will bare metal catch on?

Although e-waste is a pressing issue at hand, it is not the only one a business needs to consider. Telecoms companies are always looking for ways to be to be more power-efficient. “Bare-metal switches use commercial silicon that is brought to market one to two years faster than proprietary systems, so it is also more advanced in terms of the amount of power that needs to be consumed to deliver the same level of performance,” Gredler says. “A choice of operating systems can be used with the hardware, making it more cost-effective and flexible to transition over to that kind of technology. 

“Another point worth noting is that the underlying silicon used by open switches is also highly power efficient, as it is typically a generation ahead of the proprietary silicon used in traditional switches and routers. With recent increases in power costs, this can bring carriers even bigger cost reductions, along with clear sustainability advantages.”

At the same time this approach to tackling e-waste has not necessarily gone mainstream yet. “There is still more work and education to be done,” Gredler adds. “Replacing hardware is straightforward enough but does require telcos to shift a long-held mindset and be open to learning new ways of approaching building networks. For example, they might need to transition operational knowledge from proprietary vendors’ operating systems to open systems, such as Linux. It may also require them to assess whether some legacy features are still absolutely required, as they may not be available in modern disaggregated alternatives.”

Centring business strategies around sustainability 

Whether telcos will be quick to adopt an anti-e-waste mindset or not, sustainability no longer needs to inhibit innovation. The two can now work hand in hand to revolutionise the adaptability and sustainability of telco networks. Telecom companies who do want to assess and reduce their ecological impact need to acknowledge their part in generating e-waste and work out how they can use industry developments such as network disaggregation and merchant silicon to help address the problem.

“e-waste is always going to be a by-product of technology and infrastructure,” Gredler continues. “In telecoms we have a responsibility to ensure we stay up to date with the cutting edge in both technology and sustainability and that the legacy we leave is not a big pile of disused equipment. A big part of this will be identifying ways to cut down on the amount of e-waste being generated and to recycle old equipment, and then making sure we follow through with them.”