New year data center forecast: Fabrics, more money and silicon

451 Research Chief Analyst Eric Hanselman shares his thoughts of what 2014 will bring to the data center networking segment.

What will the new year bring for data center networks? Fabrics, merchant silicon and a resurgence in investments in fundamental networking components will dominate data center network engineering in 2014, even as enterprises mull the best way to adapt to emerging technologies, such as software-defined networks and network virtualization.

Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at New York-based 451 Research, shared his data center forecast for the next 12 months.

Fabrics redux as enterprises are reluctant to abandon spanning tree

It's fabrics all over again. Interconnection platforms like Brocade VCS, Cisco FabricPath and Juniper QFabric are nothing new, of course, but as reluctance among enterprises to move away from traditional architectures begins to melt, fabrics are once again becoming front and center, Hanselman said. "We are living in a world today where many enterprise data centers are getting themselves off legacy architecture and are beginning to look at transitions to some level of fabric and interconnect capability," he said. The advent of next-stage hardware, meantime, is offering data centers options that go even beyond fabric. "But because there has been so much hesitation [to abandon legacy systems], it seems like an anachronism, but these are steps most enterprise data centers have taken very cautiously. Getting them off spanning tree has been the largest challenge."

We have gotten to [the] point where there is a lot of gear that is getting a little long in the tooth.

Hanselman said the shift to the more efficient fabric interconnection may also be fueled by an increase in capital spending for core network components. While a 451 Research study revealed that wireless spending tops the list of IT investments enterprises will make in 2014, Hanselman said wired networking-related spending occupies the next four slots. Enterprises need to make these investments because a significant chunk of legacy equipment is reaching end of life, further accelerating a move to newer network designs.

"There has been a hold-off in networking infrastructure spend[ing] and we are seeing that lift. We are now starting to hit the end of depreciation. People have stretched equipment lifecycles. We have gotten to [the] point where there is a lot of gear that is getting a little long in the tooth, so we are now seeing a lot of unlocking for some of these transitions," Hanselman said.

At the same time, enterprises want to maintain sufficient Layer 2 density as they move from what has been a fairly integrated environment to one encompassing next-stage architectures like leaf-and-spine. "That [migration] gives enterprises the ability to interconnect better and start making transitions that give them options for better interconnect density and better resilience -- primarily headed toward Layer 2," Hanselman said.

These shifts will occur as port costs continue to drop -- another critical consideration, Hanselman said. "That will permit more interconnected architectures --such as [leaf-and-spine fabric] -- to be more attractive."

Network virtualization moving ahead, but on a scattered basis

Fueled by advances in software-defined networking (SDN), virtual networking will gain traction in 2014, but absent a unified foundation or industry-wide strategy. "There are a lot of network virtualization pieces beginning to move ahead without any direct interplay with the networking infrastructure on where they are running," Hanselman said. "We are starting to see folks on virtualized platforms using tunneling protocols to extend networking, but that is happening on a very disconnected rollout."

That said, virtualized network functionality is moving ahead, Hanselman said. In his view,  network functions virtualization (NFV) encompasses any functionality that can be recreated in a virtualized instance -- from virtualizing domain name system environments to spinning out virtual firewalls or load balancers.

Enterprises will "invest cautiously in NFV," he said. "If you want to move any of this stuff into your operation, it has to be integrated into how they run their business and integrated into the process of all the government, risk management and compliance issues, and that is a fairly complex set of steps to get to a final production implementation."

Data center forecast: Leapfrogging over initial SDN?

Because many enterprises have choked off their capex in recent years, some organizations may decide 2014 is the year to dive into SDN -- or at least dip a toe into the waters. "There is the potential to step toward functionality like OpenFlow, or [to] move toward some of the more sophisticated overlay capabilities [in order] to take some of the steps to claw back a bit of that network control and create programmable capabilities," Hanselman said.

To that end, Hanselman said organizations will take a long look at Cisco and its Application Centric Infrastructure initiative, if for no other reason than they are already Cisco customers. Although the components of ACI won't ship until mid-2014, "because you have a single vendor that so dominates the market, there are decisions to be made about the gear that's deployed, but there is an opportunity on both sides to move forward with new technologies."

White-box networking will appeal to small group of potential customers

Bare-metal switching will gain more of a toehold, but so-called white-box networking will still only appeal to a select group of customers in 2014. "All of these potentially attractive avenues will really depend on a networking buyer that is working in an infrastructure that can support it" -- primarily very large enterprises that own the entire hardware lifecycle process, Hanselman said. "The number of midmarket companies, though -- the ones who want to go out and buy directly from the white-box guys -- will remain very small."

Then there is the Trident II chip, which Broadcom made widely available to switch vendors late in 2013. The silicon, Hanselman said, is ushering in a new crop of more affordable networking gear from established vendors like Dell and Hewlett-Packard Co. The devices, such as Dell's S6000 switch, might compel some midmarket enterprises to forgo the white-box route in favor of switches from legacy vendors.

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