Flexibility Key To Next-Gen Networks

Data centers are becoming more scalable, but networking equipment can't keep up, and that's causing problems. In the new world of virtualization, cloud and data center consolidation, networks must become as flexible as virtualization has made servers.

February 16, 2012

4 Min Read
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Enterprises have entered into a state of "data center networking discontinuity," concludes a new report from the Enterprise Strategy Group. Data centers are being built at massive scales to achieve consolidation and prepare for cloud computing, but legacy data center networking equipment, operations processes, and management tools can no longer meet business and IT requirements.

"Data center networking discontinuity is a gap that's evolved between where data center technology is going and what the network is capable of," explains Jon Oltsik, senior principal analyst, ESG, in Milford, Mass. "Our research points to the fact that 63% of enterprises--defined as organizations with 1,000 employees or more-- have either done data center consolidation projects or are doing so."

Typically, that means organizations are eliminating anywhere between 25% and 50% of their existing data center population.

"They build these massive data centers with multiple tenants. So business units that used to own their own data centers now live in cooperative data centers," he says. "At the same time, they're using more virtualization technology, they're adopting more Web applications. All of these changes are happening in the way you populate data centers and in the way you write applications."

However, these evolving data centers remain reliant upon standard Ethernet switches and IP routers that were built for a different level of scale and connectivity.

"This discontinuity is causing a lot of operations problems. Specifically, there are far too many manual processes to provision and configure a network," he continued. "It's difficult to manage a network once it is configured. It's difficult to secure a network because workloads are more distributed and they're moving around due to virtualization and the cloud."

Companies are adjusting to this reality by way of buying new networking technologies to try to alleviate some of these problems, but Oltsik suggests that was merely a temporary solution.

"We believe ultimately there's a whole new architecture involved that's not just an incremental fix/what's broken approach. It's a rearchitect approach that will win out."Once companies begin to envision a new data center architecture, that holds the potential to change the overall market dynamic. "It will cause people to look at alternative vendors for example, or it could shift the balance of power between hardware and software in the network," he says. "That hasn't happened before."

According to a recent InformationWeek Analytics report, 71% of survey respondents said they have recently completed a network rearchitecting project, are planning one in the next two years or are in the midst of one, making the latter two groups ripe for a marketing pitch from rival vendors. The same percentage of respondents that are doing or planning a project say they are considering replacing their primary vendor, their secondary vendor or adding another vendor.

Change is occurring incrementally. Organizations are moving to 10 Gbit interfaces between servers and access switches. They're moving to fiber cabling instead of copper and they're clustering switches together to get redundancy.

"They'll require an architecture change, which means looking at the whole data center network fabric," he adds. "We see things on the horizon that we believe will become much more positive, and that is these fabric architectures as well as some of the software-defined network initiatives like OpenFlow.

"Basically, your network has to become as flexible as virtual servers have made servers."

When asked what organizations should focus on both short and long-term as it pertains to this dilemma, Oltsik advises that IT managers must be able to see the big picture.

"In the short term, it's picking up and looking from the top down and understanding all of the things that are changing, how they're changing and what the impact is across IT," he says. "Then take a three- to five-year time horizon and plan for the next-generation of data center networking. Obviously they'll have to phase that in. But at least they could then do that with some intelligence and understanding of where they want to go and how to get there versus looking at new provisioning tools or cabling infrastructure discreetly."

In addition to technical changes, ESG also found another transition within the networking organization itself. Its research indicated that 47% of organizations' networking teams are collaborating more with other functional IT groups than in the past; 38% of organizations' networking teams are assuming more operations tasks that were formally performed by other IT groups; 37% of organizations' networking teams needed additional training with other areas of IT; the networking team compensation model at 33% of organizations is more closely tied to business and/or overall IT objectives; and 33% of organizations' networking teams are now integrated into multidisciplinary IT groups focused on specific projects.

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