The Network Pendulum Swings Again

Michael Vizard

It seems like every half dozen years or so we see a swing in the pendulum in terms of network bandwidth.

For the past few years, routers and switches have been under pressure as more and more applications moved out across the network. Many of the applications, especially the Web 2.0 variety, are latency-sensitive. At the same time, the network itself needed to support more security functions, so what we saw was the proliferation of appliances at the edge of the network to offload many of these functions from the core routers and switches.

The trouble is that these 'router helpers' became so popular that what we wound up with is a massive amount of appliance sprawl at the edge of the network. All these appliances have separate management systems that all have to be mastered, which in turn increases the number of people needed to manage each appliance.

With the arrival of next-generation networking devices from companies such as Juniper and Cisco, it's becoming a lot more feasible to consolidate a lot of the appliances at the edge of the network. Of course, there's more bandwidth pressure being put on the network as video, low-latency unified communication applications and smartphones all claim increasingly larger segments of the network, so we'll never get rid of all the appliances. But the opportunity to consolidate appliances at the edge of the network by embedding more functionality into the router or switch, or alternatively into a firewall, has never been greater.

In addition to simply reducing the number of devices that need to managed, it can also create an opportunity to lower management costs by employing a common systems management framework. That capability, for example, is at the heart of Juniper's single JunOS operating system strategy across multiple types of network devices. In contrast, Cisco has a primary IOS operating system, but many of its acquisitions in recent years have different architectures that can contribute to higher management costs. Juniper hopes to make this a bigger issue by now licensing its JunOS to third-party vendors.

Over the years there has emerged a natural ebb and flow in terms of network performance as advances in core router and switch technology catch up with current demands and then leap ahead, only to fall back in time as applications continue to proliferate. Right now, we're at the beginning of a time when the core network infrastructure is about to catch up, even though before we know it the applications will be pulling away again.

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