Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reinventing the Network

It has been a while since I have written a blog post but this topic has been rattling my brain for two years - the network as we all knew it has been in the process of reinventing itself for some time now. What network you might ask? Well, that question leads me to this list of "networks" that have disrupted the world of technology as we know it:

- Data centers
- Enterprise networks
- Cell phone/smartphone/iPhone networks (yes, I separated iPhone from smartphones)
- PCs/Laptops/Tablets/iPad (at the moment I have separated iPad from all other wannabees)
- Social media (each is it's own network - Google+, Twitter, Quara, Tumblr, etc)
- "Anything" as as Service (AaaS) ......Cloud Computing
      - Software as a Service
      - Infrastructure as a Service
      - Hardware as a Service
      - .....and on and on Top-10-As-A-Service-Cloud-Solutions

There are others, but in my technology world these are most obvious and most interesting!

What I enjoy is changing of the guard. Market leaders rise and fall. People move and change companies and careers. Strategic movement has always drawn my interest. Startups always find a way to improve something or fill a gap. The "Hype Cycle" vs. the mainstream acceptance of new technology has always been of interest to me. As an early career engineer moved to the darkside of marketing and product management, I have been on the front end of new technology, new game changing technology, and hype cycles with Ethernet, ISDN, Fame Relay, ATM, VoIP, Unified Communications, and Open Source. Let's explore some of these in this post. The topics will not be in depth, but are intended to describe the basics.

Let's start with Data Centers and Enterprise networks. I have been involved in enterprise networking for more years than many I wish to admit. I was involved in launching the original Ethernet (DIX standard) in the field and again for IEE802.3 "Ethernet" products at Prime Computer as a product manager. What used to be called "Data Closets" - and in numerous cases still are in the enterprise, have become "data centers" and "data center racks" which are racks of servers, storage, and various networking gear from firewalls to switches and routers. As data centers evolve, this "market segment" has become one of the hottest areas for improvements due a number of reasons:
  • power
  • cooling
  • space management     
  • virtualization
  • evolution of fiber
  • cost of copper
  • management resources
  • many many others
Virtualization is the driver of server consolidation. Server consolidation typically means the combination of computing workloads from separate individual servers or applications onto a single server. You may hear the term "VMs" or the number of VMs a server can handle. These are virtual machines that become instances in a single server. As less physical servers can now handle more applications and computing workloads, power and cooling requirements change. Also, the network itself can not really manage (yet) the VM instances as they can be moved around various servers and optimization of server use, cooling, and space is difficult to do. There is a new term, DCIM - Data Center Infrastructure Management - that represents the goal of providing management and optimization of these emerging large data centers. new major players come from the power and cooling side of the data center business chain but nearly everyone has a DCIM oriented tool for their equipment. 451 Research has done some research in this area. Venture capitalists have funded a few start-ups in the DCIM market segment which indicates optimism for this market.

The structure and configurations of "racks" in data centers have emerged over recent years as well.  Network switches are taking on a different role. One of which is as a top of rack switch. A Top of the Rack or (TOR) switch is typically a less expensive and smaller port count switch that sits on the top or near the top of a rack you see in Data Centers or Co-location facilities. This in itself is a battlefield. Competitors are Cisco, IBM through it's acquisition of Blade Networking Technologies, Dell through it's acquisition of Force 10,  Juniper, Arista, and others. Not all data centers use this solution, however, it is trendy.

What is driving the new a architectures? The additional of millions of end user devices capable of video and heavy duty use. The demands on networks to be reliable, fast, low latency, no packet loss and the older architectures found today are driving these changes.

To go one step further, the demands are driving networks to become flatter eliminating bottlenecks that exist from routing tables tables, spanning tree and the exponential growth in these data centers. Newer Software Defined Network protocols are appearing such a OpenFlow and OpenStack which today are being considered by early adopters and start-ups as well as established companies have release 1.0 solutions. These technologies are well into the hype cycle. What excites me about these disruptive technologies are they are open source based. This will accelerate the market and adoption. I predict huge changes in network designs in the future from here on.

Again, this is just a high level view of what is happening in the disruption of data centers, in the enterprise, at cloud companies and co-location cages for enterprises of all sizes. Far more details are a available on the web.

My next blog post in the near future will be about cell phones/smartphones/iPhones/PCs/Laptops/Tablets/iPads.  These are a far cry from data centers, however, these are a major driver of demanding network changes! I look forward to seeing you upon your return.