New Era, New Network

Arthur Cole

In the olden days -- maybe two years ago -- the different elements of enterprise infrastructures were pretty well-defined. Storage was the data repository. Servers processed the data so it could be accessed by desktops and other endpoints. And the network kept it all together.

But those days are coming to an end. Before too long, actual enterprise resources will be as ethereal as the data environments they support. If some people have their way, storage, processing and other functions will be cobbled together on the fly from any number of disparate locations, turning the network into a giant backplane charged with not only delivering data and applications with little or no latency, but all the resources needed to make sense of digital information.

Naturally, this has a lot of networking professionals worried. As The Yankee Group pointed out recently, current multi-tiered, Layer 3 networks were not designed for this kind of environment, and it doesn't appear that traditional networking solutions -- essentially, more of the same but faster -- will cut it this time.

Instead, what we're seeing is a wholesale re-imagining of network infrastructure and its role in modern data environments. All the top players in the field, Cisco, HP, Juniper, etc., recognize this and are out to prove they have the key to networking nirvana in the virtual/cloud universe.

For Juniper, the answer lies in doing away with the old tiered approach that relies on multiple hand-offs of data packets and all of the latency-inducing processing at each hop. The new EX4500 switch, for example, is designed to function across multiple networking devices under the company's Virtual Chassis architecture. The system can accommodate up to 48 10 GbE ports and can link up to 10 additional EX4200 switches and control them as a single device.

Of course, no one has more of a vested interest in the status quo than Cisco, by virtue of its overwhelming share of the enterprise networking market. But even here, the company sees the writing on the virtual wall and is out to integrate networking and computing under the Unified Computing System. By automating much of the virtual workload management process, the goal is to lessen the complexity that currently exists between virtual and physical systems and the underlying network.

And at HP, the focus is shifting to what company executives are calling the "third wave of networking" that is geared toward service delivery rather than raw networking or processing power. Part of this strategy relies on converged infrastructure, but HP also is seeking standards-based solutions that allow the networking side of the house to accommodate virtual environments as easily as server and storage does now. No doubt, this will rely heavily on 3Com's networking prowess as the company seeks to foster highly integrated server/storage/networking platforms for virtual and cloud environments.

The drawback to all of this is that most of it is still very much in the laboratory phase. Cisco is probably the farthest ahead in terms of an actual product with its UCS platform, with possible production deployments as early as next year.

In the meantime, enterprise executives will have to make do with what they have -- networks that are adept at shuttling data and application loads, but are not yet ready for the resource-shifting/global-balancing environments that are being promised.

We may get there someday, but it won't be tomorrow.

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