Navigating the Data Center Networking Landscape

With so many new options to create a powerful network ecosystem; learn how to better navigate the entire data center networking landscape.

Bill Kleyman

July 27, 2016

7 Min Read
Network cables
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Today’s networking layer has become one of the most advanced infrastructure components in the data center. We are far beyond simple network route tables and ensuring data traffic patterns. Now, we’re creating contextual policies around information, users, applications, and entire cloud infrastructure components. We’ve created automation at the networking layer; and have even completely abstracted the data and control plane via next-generation SDN.

Administrators today are tasked with creating a much smarter networking layer. One that is capable of keeping up with some of the most advanced business and IT demands. In a recent Worldwide Enterprise Networking Report, IDC pointed out that virtualization continues to have a sizable impact on the enterprise network. IDC expects that these factors will place unprecedented demands on the scalability, programmability, agility, analytics capabilities, and management capabilities of enterprise networks. They predict that in 2016, overall enterprise network revenue will grow 3.5 percent to reach $41.1 billion.

It’s really no surprise that these new types of technologies will have major impacts around the entire enterprise networking layer. Most of all – these systems will change the way business create go-to-market strategies and where next-generation networking technologies can make an impact.

In one of my recent articles here on DCK, we defined the overall SDN landscape. We examined technologies like NSX, ACI, and even open SDN systems. Today, we take a step back and will look at four data center networking components impacting the modern business:

  • Traditional data center networking.

  • Software-defined networking.

  • White/brite box networking.

  • Cloud networking.

In working with these various networking options – it’s critical to understand use-cases and where these types of systems actually fit in with your data center. Remember, oftentimes there isn’t one solution that will fit all requirements. Many organizations will deploy multiple networking technologies spanning SDN, cloud, and even traditional technologies to keep up with business and market demands.

  • Traditional Data Center Networking. There have been many advancements in the traditional networking layer. Cisco, Arista, Juniper, Brocade, HPE, and Dell are continuing to develop integrated networking systems for the modern data center. Yes – there are other data center network manufacturers – but for the sake of keeping the article’s length manageable, it’s actually more important to understand overall capabilities than individual vendors. Organizations like Cisco bank on the fact that you can integrate the entire network and fabric backplane with their networking technologies. Of course, you’ll get the biggest benefits when you’re running a complete Cisco ecosystem. However, if you’re working with smaller offices, branch locations, or even a smaller amount of users – it’s critical to look at other technologies which can make an impact. Dell and HPE, for example, have been known to provide solid solutions at great price points. Or, let’s assume you need a massive amount of throughput at your data center layer. Solutions from Juniper and Arista can help those organizations looking to pass a massive amount of traffic through the networking layer. Even though there are similarities between these major vendors – traditional data center networking technologies are powerful in the use-cases they support. So, if you’re working with convergence – look for networking technologies which can better support it via native means. So, Cisco, HPE, and Dell may be great options. Ultimately, traditional networking is a lot smarter and a lot more powerful. These architectures can act as direct extensions of the data center; even incorporating things like SDN into the ecosystem.

  • Software-Defined Networking (SDN). This brings us to the next point. SDN has become a big technology for many organizations looking to build more intelligence into the networking layer. There are a few key considerations here. Vendors like Cisco (ACI) and Arista (EOS) have taken SDN to the next level by integrating into their hardware and software stack. From there, vendors like VMware (NSX) have integrated SDN control into the entire virtualization ecosystem. Finally, open source and open SDN vendors like Cumulus Networks, Plexxi, and Big Switch are creating powerful networking overlays and integration technologies for even more use-cases. In this scenario alone – you see three options to work with. If you have invested in existing data center technologies (like Cisco or Arista, for example) working with their SDN solution might make a lot of sense. It’ll integrate better, you’ll have less of a learning curve, and you’ll be able to leverage existing investments. Working with hypervisor-layer SDN makes sense if you’re very heavily virtualized and need to better control VM traffic. Remember, SDN at this layer doesn’t always provide the best levels of visibility into the physical layer – but it will certainly help you control your distributed VM architecture. Finally, working with open SDN solutions is an up-and-coming trend. If you’re a service provider, or are trying to create your own customized networking environment, working with these types of SDN overlay technologies could do the trick. Just remember that these are newer technologies and there is still a bit of a learning curve.

  • White/Brite Box Networking. Now, we break away from a lot of the named brands out there and discuss a big trend impacting a lot of data centers and service providers. Let’s quickly define white box versus brite box. Simply put, white box networking is a hardware component which, at its core, provides the underlying hardware for you to utilize. An example of this would be a QuantaMesh switch. Brite box networking is basically branded white box solutions. So, for example, placing Cumulus Linux on top of a Dell, HPE, Mellanox, or even SuperMicro switch. The cool part here is that we are seeing trends around white/brite box adoption. Gartner recently pointed out that that by 2018, non-traditional switching will account for more than 10 percent of global data center port shipments, up from under 4 percent in 2013. Now, that being said, this type of networking architecture is yet to see real mainstream adoption. For now, it really is limited to the big service providers, cloud hosts, and those organizations creating customized hyperscale solutions. Still, there are big cost saving opportunities here and the ability to create powerfully custom business solutions. If you’re looking to work with these types of systems – make sure to line up support, a good partner which can help out, and ensure you have the right use-case.

  • Cloud Networking. It’s a big, bold, cloudy world out there and networking is certainly playing its part. Cloud networking has become a big initiative for those organizations scaling their data centers into a cloud ecosystem. There are numerous platforms which help extend data center networking components into the cloud. Let me give you an example – OpenStack Neutron. Neutron creates a network-as-a-service environment which interfaces between your data center networking devices and those managed by other OpenStack services and resources. So, if you’re trying to extend your data center into the cloud; and then further integrate your cloud with other cloud services and hosts – working with OpenStack as an overall management solution might make sense. So, maybe you’re trying to build a multi-tier application delivery architecture; or – you’re creating your own advanced networking services which plugs into the OpenStack ecosystem; working with Neutron might be the right answer. These types of cloud networking technologies help create advanced provider networks which give you granular controls and very powerful network customization capabilities. So, if you’re working with cloud – look at cloud networking solutions to help simplify management and allow you to further integrate with advanced cloud solutions.

Moving forward, we’re going to see even more data pass through the networking layer. Dependency on networking systems will grow as more organizations deploy dense virtualization solutions and continue their migrations into the cloud. “The network is becoming a more strategic element of many business strategies and, in many cases, is the backbone of the business moving forward,” said Rohit Mehra, vice president, Network Infrastructure at IDC. “In 2016, we will see that manifest as enterprise IT decision makers seek new technologies that can create new efficiencies by shifting the physical to the virtual, leveraging APIs, and building better pathways to customer engagement while maximizing the value of pre-existing networking deployments.”

Always make sure to work with networking technologies which support your business functions. Most of all – ensure that these technologies create a more agile data center infrastructure, which allow your users to be a lot more productive.

About the Author(s)

Bill Kleyman

Bill Kleyman has more than 15 years of experience in enterprise technology. He also enjoys writing, blogging, and educating colleagues about tech. His published and referenced work can be found on Data Center Knowledge, AFCOM, ITPro Today, InformationWeek, NetworkComputing, TechTarget, DarkReading, Forbes, CBS Interactive, Slashdot, and more.

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