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How cloud-native networking will transform infrastructure

Cloud-native networking aims to prioritize business needs and enable networks to become more efficient. Learn more about the potential benefits and challenges in this expert Q&A.

The term cloud-native is a relatively new buzzword that aims to define a world of flexible network infrastructure without vendor specifications -- although the definition may vary among sources.

As with most buzzword trends, cloud-native networking wants to improve upon modern networking's flaws and develop a more holistic understanding of networks, rather than strategies based on vendor specifications. Understanding the ins and outs of network infrastructure is critical to solve problems and fix errors when they arise, according to author Dinesh Dutt, and he believes cloud-native concepts can help.

In his book, Cloud Native Data Center Networking, from O'Reilly Media, Dutt explores the architecture, protocols, tools and concepts that can enable cloud-native networking to transform network infrastructure.

Editor's note: The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

What's your definition of cloud-native, and what does it mean for networking?

Dinesh Dutt: When I think about cloud-native ... I think: How do I build the networks that matter to me and my business in a way that's efficient to operate and own?

Dinesh DuttDinesh Dutt

If you take a step back, networking exists as a communication channel. If people don't want to talk, there is nothing anybody can do with networking. Applications have changed and made networking more central. The rise of microservices is an example of communications between applications becoming more distributed. The rise of machine learning and AI models makes … more communication necessary.

As a consequence, the way networking is done also needs to change. How is a network built that serves a cloud-native application [and] provides it the highest capacity, most reliable network possible? You can't just build a high-capacity, reliable network. It is not easy to operate because things will go wrong. You need to know how to fix it if it goes wrong.

So, cloud-native networking is about building a robust, reliable and scalable network infrastructure in a way that transcends vendor-specific designs and is based on the business needs, with a ruthless focus on operational efficiency.

cloud-native data center networking book coverClick here to learn more
about this book.

What are the biggest challenges with cloud-native networking?

Dutt: The primary challenge … is how [network teams] operate networks. SDN [software-defined networking] was a bit of a misnomer or not a real problem-solver for building what I consider the network underlay. For that, it is far more efficient to rely on traditional networking because networking worked. There was no need to change that medium.

If you look around now, all the focus on SDN moved to areas other than the data center networking fabric. This fabric is still used largely the way networking was traditionally designed, which uses distributed routing protocols and classic IP networking.

Network operators were raised in traditional networking to operate box by box. Everything they did was on a box. Network boxes were like remotes you have for a TV in a hotel room. You know where the power button is and volume and channels, but everything else is mystery and frustration.

The biggest challenge network operators face is this shift away from manual operations to thinking about the network as a system holistically.
Dinesh DuttAuthor

Networking equipment is like that. A lot of certifications were around operating those buttons, rather than understanding the point of turning on the TV and how it serves what you want. Networking to serve business or application needs became somewhat secondary to typing commands on a vendor box.

The biggest challenge network operators face is this shift away from manual operations to thinking about the network as a system holistically. Network operators have a difficult time stepping away from things they were taught as part of certifications. It's a cultural shift in what they do, how they do it and how they think about it.

Existing traditional network vendors continue to not make it easy to address those problems. They help you a little, but they don't make it so you can consume it with ease. For example, cloud is becoming so successful because [cloud providers] have built the tools themselves to make their network work as efficiently as possible. Vendors don't make that easy for others to do.

So, that's the biggest challenge: the cultural challenge for network operators moving away from vendor-specific and box-specific ways of thinking and the challenge for network vendors to adapt and build equipment so they are more general and more operable than they were in the past.

What are the top cloud-native network functions?

Dutt: The most important point is the ability to look at the network far more sagely and far less reactively than today. It's not that cloud providers don't have challenges in operating their network; it is that they made sure that, when they are disturbed, it is for a good reason and not for the most common, trivial reasons.

The top benefit for network operators is that the network will operate more robustly, reliably and predictably than in the past. You could switch between [vendors] with greater ease if you didn't worry that, every time you switch, your entire staff has to be retrained. With cloud-native, you benefit from flexibility, both in how networking infrastructure works and how you as a consumer can think about it and consume it. And, most critically, you can build networks that matter to running your business efficiently, rather than to a vendor selling you a product.

People talk about 'vendor-agnostic' and 'multi-cloud,' but anybody who has tried multi-cloud quickly understands it is not as easy or as ideal as people think. Cloud providers are doing exactly what network vendors did to make sure vendor lock-in happens. Part of it is the nature of the business. … But then every cloud provider offers services in a slightly different way, and so multi-cloud becomes hard.

The same thing happened with networking, and I fear we will run into the same problem. Vendor-agnostic is important but still not something people think about as easy to do even with cloud. But, with cloud-native networking, that's the promise -- that you don't have to think about it from a vendor-specific point of view.

This was last published in April 2021

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