Zen and the Art of IT Infrastructure

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Like any complicated ecosystem of machines, the art of managing a well-run IT environment comes down to maintaining balance between all the elements of the environment. Unfortunately, thanks to the rise of virtualization and a massive spike in the amount of data that needs to be managed, achieving any level of zen-like balance in the data center is going to become increasingly hard to achieve and maintain.

The real issue is bandwidth. As more virtual machines come on line, they compete for network and storage resources. Right now, most IT organizations are just beginning to maximize available bandwidth, but the writing is clearly on the wall as to when they will need new IT infrastructure to keep pace with demand for more capacity.

The good news is that next-generation IT infrastructure technologies are on their way. Cisco, for example, this week at its Cisco Live! event in London unveiled new offerings that include a Nexus 7000 M2-Series 2-port, 100 GbE Module with XL Option that delivers 100 GbE across 32 ports for the Nexus 7000 switch and a Nexus 7000 M2-Series 6-port 40 GbE Module with XL Option that delivers 40 GbE across 96 ports.

Cisco is hardly the only vendor bringing this class of networking equipment to market. But it does signal a general increase in networking throughput that will become increasingly more critical as cloud computing continues to evolve. According to Shashi Kiran, Cisco senior director for data center and enterprise switching, it's mostly early adopters and providers of cloud services that are interested in the class of networking gear at the moment, but he expects adoption rates to pick up significantly going into 2013.

Obviously, the availability of higher bandwidth networking gear is one thing; making it more affordable is another. Mellanox Technologies, a provider of the interconnect silicon that many vendors rely on, recently cut pricing on its 10GbE products. That should soon result in 10GbE price points in the range of $188 to $257 per port. As 10GbE pricing falls, David Barzilai, vice president of marketing for Mellanox, says customers should also expect to soon see drops in 40GbE products as well, which means some organizations may decide to skip 10GbE products in the core of the data center to eliminate the network as a bottleneck for years to come.

What is unclear is to what degree 10, 40 and even 100 GbE products will take hold. There's obviously a lot of interest in the networking community, but storage vendors are arguing over the merits of 10 GbE versus next-generation 8 and 16 Gigabit-per-second Fibre channel systems. That's a debate that will most likely continue through the rest of the decade.

In the meantime, vendors such as PMC-Sierra have unveiled next-generation 12 Gb-per-second controllers, which means that available bandwidth between SAS drives and the controller is about to substantially increase as well. Derek Dicker, vice president of product marketing for PMC-Sierra, says that throughput capability will prove to be especially important as IT organizations begin to rely more on solid-state drives that can generate a hundred times more I/Os per second than a traditional hard drive.

It may take all of 2012 for all these changes to the IT infrastructure to play out. But one thing that is for certain is that by 2013, a level of balance should be returning to IT environments as the costs of acquiring the next generation of IT infrastructure starts to significantly decline in 2012.