A magician pulls a rabbit from a hat and the audience is captivated by the spectacle, but the real magic happened behind the scenes—a sleight of hand. When you stream a movie to your smartphone, it’s the user experience that likewise captivates. But the real magic happens in data centers around the world, where more than a petabyte of information is transferred every minute through an endless patchwork of servers and endpoints.
The audience clamors for new tricks, but the magician has grown old. There’s no doubt we’ve come this far thanks to an IT backbone built on legacy network architecture, but this brave new world of tablets, smartphones, and connected everything has outgrown the network infrastructure that powers it. Increasingly, this is becoming evident for businesses in their day-to-day operations. Ask your IT administrator the first word that comes to mind when you say “network,” and chances are they’ll respond with “bottleneck.”
The data flowing between data centers today has little in common with the data of ten years ago. It’s not just the fact that there’s a lot more of it—it’s gone from thin to rich, usage requirements have changed from static to dynamic, and connections have shifted from fixed to mobile. The new normal is driven by expectations of a constant stream of new services delivered cheaply and on demand. Traditional network architectures simply are not designed to meet these needs, and Cloud Service Providers (CSPs), telecom carriers, and enterprise IT departments are starting to feel the pinch.
With 92 percent of IT executives acknowledging a need for major infrastructure upgrades, it’s clear that something fundamental needs to change if we’re to continue down the path of innovation that has defined the digital era.
Keys to the Network of the Future
For decades, data centers have scaled simply by adding physical capacity. This more or less worked until recently, albeit with the caveat of huge amounts of waste generated in the form of server sprawl and underutilized resources. But in the age of cloud computing and ubiquitous mobility, this model is rapidly approaching a point of diminishing returns. Sure, you can deploy a 2 TB flash cache to address bottlenecks, but for how long, and is it really practical in the first place? Can businesses afford to waste resources like this. No, they cannot.
The solutions to the biggest challenges hampering the data center will require both hardware and software solutions, not hardware alone—but also a mental shift by the IT departments themselves.
Many of today’s senior ITDMs cut their teeth back in the 1990s, when legacy network architectures were first conceived to fuel a connected world, and often attitudes are still stuck in this era. However, today’s users need a more agile and responsive network to support a cloud-based world. As a result, ITDMs need to change their attitudes, challenge the status quo, and embrace what users need today. This means adopting a new way of thinking. Although this is never easy, and not all ITDMs will make the change, they must do so in order to succeed.
Fabrics, SDN and NFV at the Forefront of Innovation
For example, IT departments need to redefine the way data is distributed, and transformational architecture models like fabric-based networks, Software-Defined Networking (SDN), and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) are leading the charge. Fabrics increase network utilization by 200 percent and reduce OpEx by more than 50 percent, while delivering zero-touch provisioning that radically simplifies network deployment and improves efficiency. This provides the agile physical foundation that businesses need to drive change. Like building a house, you cannot do anything without stable foundations. Fabrics provide this in the data center, and they enable greater innovation across the rest of the business.
Together, NFV and SDN are creating highly automated and more efficiently architected networks that deliver next-generation apps and services with ease and speed—we’re talking about deployment in minutes, not days or weeks!—enabling businesses to stop worrying about how to deliver their products and services and get back to innovating new ones.
Often misunderstood, SDN and NFV are complementary, but not the same. For instance, SDN leverages the flexibility of new communication protocols like OpenFlow to give network administrators unprecedented control over the path of network packets. If network traffic begins to bottleneck, administrators can redirect the flow to a different switch, and it’s done entirely in software. Routing rules can be set ad hoc, or they can be entirely automated through a centralized interface.
NFV, meanwhile, allows administrators to virtualize core network functions. Instead of relying on a proprietary device for vital tasks like firewalling, administrators can offload the function to a standard x86 server. Virtualized functions can even be deployed in the cloud.
Future-proofing Network Architecture
So how can businesses build a platform for innovation in the data center? One key lesson that can be drawn from the issues currently plaguing data centers is that it is very difficult to predict the needs of future products and services. That’s why networks should consequently be constructed with an eye toward open standards and interoperability of hardware that provides a blueprint for innovation.
The most meaningful benefit of a fabric- and software-based network architecture is in the long term—the freedom to innovate and the ability to cost-effectively deliver new applications and services in minutes instead of days or weeks. But before we can look ahead to creating new products and services, the likes of which the world has never seen, we need to do a better job of powering the products and services we already have. CSPs that began deploying SDN and NFV last year are already beginning to realize benefits, and carriers as well as enterprises are expected to begin rolling out SDN and NFV solutions in 2015.
Breaking the Network Status Quo
All of today’s business challenges provide a unique opportunity for IT departments to be change agents and challenge the status quo. They need to continually ask “Why?” Why is the business following the same old strategy of adding boxes to deal with different problems? Why are we locking ourselves into proprietary standards that inhibit flexibility and choice? Why are our users bemoaning the ongoing lack of innovation?
By addressing these questions, IT departments can begin to evolve network architectures to better meet the needs of today’s applications and services, broaden the way they can positively impact the business, and lay the groundwork for products and innovations yet to be imagined. In essence, they can bring the magic back to the data center.
About the Author: As chief technology officer and vice president of Corporate Development and Emerging Business, Ken Cheng leads the company’s technology strategy, software networking solutions, key business initiatives, M&A, and investment portfolio as it focuses on the evolving data center infrastructure within enterprises, cloud service providers, and Federal markets. Previously, Cheng served as vice president of routing, application delivery, and software networking, owning the overall vision, strategy, and execution of these business areas.