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Data Center Automation Requires a New Approach to Network Architecture

The need of businesses for greater responsiveness from their IT departments is driving data center automation. Data center automation requires a new approach to network architecture that results in networks that are flat for high performance, multipath for high availability, and open to orchestration for quick provisioning and re-provisioning as application loads move within and among data centers.
Server virtualization changes everything in the data center; but virtualization isn’t the goal. As DCIG’s president recently asserted, data center automation should be every organization’s end game. Automation takes the data center beyond consolidation to create greater agility and availability. 
Many organizations have automated the movement of servers and their associated data stores through the use of VMware’s vMotion and Storage vMotion. These tools enable continuous application availability during routine server maintenance activities and an improved business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) posture. But network automation lags. According to Mark Fabbi of Gartner, “Automated application provisioning allows applications to be rapidly deployed, but the ‘human middleware’ of network operations can delay deployment for days or weeks.1
Automation is not the only factor contributing to the need to rethink data center networking. Other factors include:
  • Changing data traffic patterns. According to Gartner, “Traffic patterns in the data center are changing from being predominantly client/server to a significant level of server-to-server flows. By 2014, network planners should expect more than 80% of traffic in the data center network to be between servers.2
  • More data traffic per physical host. The new generation of servers with large RAM capacities and many cores permit a doubling of VMs per physical host. New high-performance storage architectures are enabling another doubling of VM density. 
  • The opportunity to simplify and even unify network architectures enabled by 10 GbE and iSCSI.
Established networking vendors all recognize the need for a new data center network architecture and have come to market with solutions based on their own views and strengths. New entrants with super-low-latency switching fabrics have emerged to address business cases where mere milliseconds separate winners from losers. 
The new network architecture is flat. In many cases the aggregation tier of switches is completely eliminated from the design. Traffic moves with fewer hops across large Layer 2 domains, eliminating latency from the data path.
New standards enable multiple data paths to be used simultaneously. Spanning tree is out. TRILL, 802.1aq, 802.1BR and 802.Qbg are in. The result is both greater overall throughput and high availability.
At DCIG we recognize that there is a growing dynamic interdependence among data center infrastructure technologies. Just as there is a lot of innovation occurring in storage, the last several years have seen a significant uptick in network innovation. According to Forrester, “The amount of innovation that has transpired within the data center LAN over the last four years almost equals the last 15 years of the campus LAN, branch WAN/LAN, and wireless LAN innovation, and the rapid innovation will continue.3
Because new platforms and new players have made data center network buying decisions much more complex, DCIG has begun work on a data center switch buyer’s guide that we expect to complete later in 2013. As with our other buyer’s guides, the goal will be to help organizations make faster and better informed purchasing decisions. DCIG accomplishes this goal by helping organizations identify the features that should matter most to them and then more quickly get to a short list of products that they want to evaluate in depth.
The Data Center is changing, and so are expectations/requirements for data center networks. The move toward an agile, cloud-style approach to IT service delivery that enterprises now expect means that the data center network must join server and storage environments under a unified management/automation umbrella. Because data flows in the next generation data center are primarily server-to-server and server-to-storage, a logical starting point in the move to a new network architecture is within the data center itself. 
1 Source: “Magic Quadrant for Data Center Network Infrastructure,” 11 February 2013 / ID Number: G00235303, Gartner
2 Source: “Your Data Center Network is Heading for Traffic Chaos, Bjarne Munch,” 27 April 2011 / ID Number: G00210674, Gartner
Source: “The Forrester Wave: Data Center Networking Hardware, Q1 2013,” Andre Kindness, 23 January 2013, Forrester
Ken Clipperton

About Ken Clipperton

Ken Clipperton is the Lead Analyst for Storage at DCIG, a group of analysts with IT industry expertise who provide informed, insightful, third party analysis and commentary on IT hardware, software and services. Within the data center, DCIG has a special focus on the enterprise data storage and electronically stored information (ESI) industries.

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