Interview

Interop 2010: Data center network infrastructure trends you can't ignore

Susan Fogarty, editorial director
We're seeing a lot of interest in data center networking from our readers, so I'm guessing a lot of them will be attending your Data

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Center sessions at Interop Las Vegas. What's causing all this interest in the data center network infrastructure?
Doug Washburn
There are a handful of broader data center infrastructure motivations that are forcing data center managers to rethink networking strategies. The biggest one is virtualization and the consolidation of infrastructure. To really ratchet up virtualization efforts, eventually you run into networking challenges, and this is where organizations are thinking of things like 10 Gigabit Ethernet in the data center so that they can keep up with demands. Virtualization is not just about consolidating the physical footprint and associated costs but all the other associated benefits like dynamically launching applications, reducing latency and disaster recovery. We're starting to see that if we don't take care of network considerations, we're not going to be able to make the most out of the infrastructure that we own and our virtualization strategy.

There's also rising interest in new forms of collaboration technologies like video conferencing or such applications as SharePoint. Organizations are beginning to rely on large amounts of information to get work done. We have examples of customers who have run major business applications for SharePoint and run business processes through SharePoint documents. If accessing that information takes a long time, users get frustrated and avoid using the system, causing you to lose the benefits of it.

Which of the sessions in your Interop Las Vegas track would be most useful for networking professionals?
I'd like to say all of them, but a couple stand out. I'd recommend the first session, "Bridging the C-suite gap: How to build the business case for data center transformation." Of course, to the audience, "data center transformation" is going to mean a number of things -- it could mean changes in facilities, or changes to the server, storage and network architectures. It's a high-level session, but I do think it's worthwhile for networking professionals who might be pretty technical to reinforce their position with the bigger picture. Especially if their organization is thinking of the elusive concept of the next-generation data center: What is the network's role in that, and how do they justify it?

Another session that would be quite worthwhile is "Planning for server, storage and network convergence." Some [product] offerings, like Cisco's UCS, are breaking down the silos of the typical technology teams and putting everything into one box. The technology is forcing individuals who may not have worked that closely together before -- even though they are all dependent on one another -- to think about cross-departmental considerations.

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The cloud computing session, "How data center managers should evaluate the cloud and cloud-like efficiencies," will be interesting as well. Networking professionals will want to know what we mean by cloud -- there's public cloud versus private cloud, and we'll focus on the private cloud and organizations really ramping up shared services and offering IT services via the Internet in a self-provisioning status. The network is going to be critical for organizations to take advantage of that internally in a private cloud, let alone if you're offering it externally and have to work with outside partners and providers.

What do you think is most critical for network engineers and managers to learn about data center network infrastructure right now?
I would say the most important thing is taking stock of all the technology trends happening. There's massive consolidation of infrastructure. That could be multiple data centers down to few; it could be standalone servers down to more single, virtualized boxes that have a lot of apps running on them. The notion of "smart computing," or truly connecting the digital world to the physical world, gets into wide area networks and wireless networks and a tremendous amount of data passing through the pipes, plus having the storage and CPU to make the most of all the information you're collecting. You don't want the network to be the bottleneck.

Networking professionals need to insert themselves into the conversation about the network's role in all of this and why improvements to the current network infrastructure can be justified and how they will help the organization move forward on the path of maturing its IT.

Network automation is a topic that comes up a couple of times in your Interop Las Vegas track. Why is it important?
As network automation continues to improve, there are certain responsibilities the networking staff has now that will no longer need to exist. So you need to decide whether to push down the deep-dive, techie, certification route and how to make a particular box, switch or router work, or to focus more on network architecture planning. There is a fundamental change -- a lot of it coming from cloud, outsourcing and collocation. As your organization starts to consider, "Do we really need to own our own IT infrastructure to still offer the same services and availability?" how is that going to affect the role of the network manager or, in particular, the engineers? Much of the adoption of green networking has been around how the network can enable companies to monitor power consumption. How do you think the network factors into green IT?
The network is the area within the data center that has received the least amount of attention from an energy-efficiency and green perspective. That's justified, because when organizations do a data center energy audit, the network consumes the least amount of energy compared with cooling, power losses through UPS and transformer equipment, and servers and storage. The network is down at the bottom, at only 5% to 10% of total data center energy consumption. Nevertheless, vendors are coming out with more efficient networking equipment and gear, so that's something to consider when you're refreshing.

I really see the network as a critical enabler of other green activities. What I mean by that is, for example, if you want to take advantage of collaboration tools and video conferencing, improvements in the network are going to be necessary. So, actually, your environmental footprint and energy consumption of the network will go up, but hopefully the improvements will make the collaboration experience for the user so much better that they'll actually use the video conferencing technology you have [and reduce overall energy consumption].

Also, upgrading to 10 Gigabit Ethernet is a great way to help organizations heavily pursue server virtualization and infrastructure consolidation. Again, the biggest benefits will come from having fewer servers and less storage gear plugged in, and the network will enable that. I see the network itself not as the primary target for reducing energy consumption, but network improvements can help other aspects of IT become better at what they do.

Read more coverage of Interop 2010 on our special page.


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