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Network consolidation in data centers essential to reducing costs

The next generation of data center design puts a focus on speedier, better-managed networks to do more work at half the price.

In today's economic environment, enterprises are under increased pressure to make data centers more cost effective in terms of capital and operational expenses. The network is playing a key role in reducing data center complexity so that companies can achieve those savings.

"Certainly in terms of this economic environment, customers … need an architecture that's flexible and efficient," said Cindy Borovick, a vice president of research at IDC. "That absolutely has to do with networking. If you think about newer, more consolidated data centers, you need the network architecture to support the larger number of applications in that data center."

Borovick said that this means a need to support faster connections, with almost all vendors quickly moving to 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections that can support more applications and data flow on fewer physical devices while also giving extra bandwidth to support virtualized devices that have higher utilization levels.

But beyond bandwidth, Borovick also said data center networks need the ability to quickly prioritize and manage various services, particularly as more of those services are moved to virtualized machines.

For many vendors, the key initiatives revolve around messages of speed and simplicity.

Juniper, for example, recently announced a data center network architecture that the company claims can slash costs by up to half in capital expenditures, cooling costs, and power consumption by reducing the number of hardware components needed in its data center architecture compared with existing designs.

The primary element being cut away is the aggregation layer. Juniper achieves this by allowing its top rack of switches, the EX4200 series, to serve as a virtual chassis.

Borovick said the industry as a whole is moving in the same direction.

"It's a really good question of how different [Juniper is]," she said. "Everyone I've talked to has realized there will be a consolidation of networking in the data center."

She said there were tactical differences, but the macro trends are consistent across the industry.

For example, Cisco prefers more baked-in network intelligence, where the computing power is distributed throughout the network.

"Cisco's position is that if you're moving to a dynamic data center, you need intelligence in the network to support the compute," Borovick said. "Juniper's saying we're going to keep our innovation at the transportation layer."

"You're going to continue to see more announcements in the data center networking space that drive the bandwidth up while reducing complexity," she said. "These are key trends in the data center, and networking vendors are following."

One large driver is the need to cut ongoing expenses, particularly power costs, which have come under increasing scrutiny as enterprises look for ways to derive more value from their existing data center designs.

Even the EPA has become involved in pushing for greater energy efficiency, according to Doug Alger, the author of Build the Best Data Center Facility for Your Business from Cisco Press. Alger is currently writing another book about green data centers.

Between 2000 and 2006, for example, the EPA found data center power consumption had doubled -- a troubling trend as the nation seeks greater energy independence, but also a problem for existing data center architectures which were never designed to support such high power consumption.

Starting in 2000, Alger said, higher-density Linux servers started becoming mainstream. They were cheap to deploy, and electricity was relatively cheap back then.

"We've seen that demand grow and grow and grow," he said. But electric costs -- and concern about ongoing operating expenses -- have also grown.

To cut those costs, Alger said, enterprises can pursue a number of methods, such as new cooling techniques, higher-efficiency components and operational changes such as turning off under-utilized servers in non-peak times.

But the larger industry trends of simplification and consolidation will also play a role in cutting ongoing expenses.

"I've always been a big believer in simpler is better," Alger said.

Reducing the amount of hardware in the data center cuts a number of related costs, from electricity consumption to cooling. Higher bandwidths give data centers the flexibility to virtualize more of their server infrastructure, allowing them to make more efficient use of the hardware they already have in place.

"It's about efficiency, and it's about getting the most for what you have," Borovick said. "Certainly there are capex savings, but it's really about the ongoing expenses."

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