Scaling cloud service delivery with flatter data center architecture

Advanced services like cloud computing are key to future revenue growth. Flatter next-generation data center architecture makes next-gen service delivery more cost-effective.

Service providers have built their empires by focusing on the pipes that ferry voice and data traffic around their networks. But future revenue growth depends on the ability to deliver next-generation services like cloud computing, which has turned attention to the telecom data center. Legacy data center multi-tier switching designs are likely to hamper cloud computing traffic loads and distribution, making flatter next-generation data center architecture an attractive option to reduce costs and improve performance.

We got to a point where we said, 'Look, we need to do a wholesale revisit at the edge and distribution designs of these networks.'

Jag Bains
Director of Network Operations
Peer1 Hosting

Peer 1 Hosting, a Vancouver-based hosting and colocation provider, has embarked on a "radical" data center transformation, according to Jag Bains, director of network operations. The new architecture comes with a learning curve, Bains said, but the payoff in terms of improved performance and simplified management has been well worth the investment.

"We wanted to remove complexity," Bains said. In our access layer alone, we have 200 to 300 switches per data center, which is quite complex. It's easy to make mistakes.

"From an administrative point of view, [the next-generation data center architecture] is much, much easier. From a monitoring and maintenance point of view, it's head and shoulders above what we have in our older data center," he added.

Telecom next-gen data centers crucial for advanced service delivery

Even traditional telcos are becoming aggressive about shedding their transport-only reputations and edging into the cloud computing market to compete alongside cloud providers like Amazon and Google, according to telecom consultant Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp. But that bullishness also comes with the recognition that their data center architectures need an overhaul, he said.

"All of them are getting very, very hot on data center architectures. That's actually a much bigger issue this year for service providers than network architecture," Nolle said. "There's no reason for them not to take advantage of a very flat [next-generation data center] architecture, because they're eventually going to need it."

 Like enterprises, most service providers haven't veered off from the traditional three-tier approach to data center switching -- core, aggregate and edge. Data center vendors, including Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, Brocade and HP Networking (which includes 3Com and H3C) have unleashed their visions of collapsed, two-tier data centers that aim to simplify cloud computing by eliminating the need for a separate aggregation layer with more powerful switches and new routing protocols.

"This architecture of three tiers of switching, which has always been done traditionally, is a thing of the past," said Dhritiman Dasgupta, senior manager of product marketing at Juniper, which recently announced its "3-2-1" flat data center strategy. "It is too complex, affects performance by making the performance slow and adds cost."

This flatter next-generation data center architecture will require a significant capital investment from service providers as they build new or revamp legacy data centers. But reducing the volume of switches will reduce latency between them and simplify management -- two important objectives for operators delivering services from fluid and multi-tenant cloud computing environments, Nolle said.

"As [service providers] get into virtualization and cloud computing in more detail, they start to realize that the way that an application is actually hosted is very important," Nolle said. "The one thing that [operators] can control in this whole ugly process is how much disorder the network might contribute. If [they] can control that by flattening the data center architecture, it frees [them] from concerns and constraints that might really complicate life down the line."

Early adopters' next-gen data center architecture shows path for telcos

Given their vast footprints and the complexity of overhauling so much legacy infrastructure, most traditional service providers won't be ready to fully embrace next-generation data center architecture on a large scale soon. In the meantime, however, they can look to early adopters, such as hosting or cloud providers, for a potential path to deployment.

Peer 1 began to see stress on its network shortly after it acquired ServerBeach in 2004, picking up customers such as YouTube and WordPress, Bains said. The hosting provider's 16 legacy data centers traditionally housed only one line of business and were built with a multi-tier switching architecture. As Peer 1 steadily grew and prepared to launch a new Toronto data center that would house all three lines of its business under one roof, Bains said the need to change its data center architecture became apparent.

"We've been growing out our network and had a lot of challenges in terms of scalability, capacity and features, and we got to a point where we said, 'Look, we need to do a wholesale revisit at the edge and distribution designs of these networks,'" he said. "We saw the network industry converging to a strategy of a collapsed data center."

Earlier this year, Peer 1 launched its Toronto data center with a two-tier switching design based on Juniper's next-generation data center strategy, which uses its "virtual chassis" software to enable multiple switches to function and be managed as one. The hosting provider anticipates retrofitting three of its legacy data centers with Juniper's MX Series routers to bring two-tier switching to more of its data center footprint, Bains said.

"We have not removed a layer [in those data centers] as of today but have realized the benefits of virtualization at the aggregation layer," Bains said. "And [we now] have the pieces in place that allow for a collapse of the distribution and aggregation/access layer in the very near future."

Make next-generation data center architecture part of cloud strategy

Traditional telecom operators that want to make a cloud computing play would be best served to embrace flatter next-generation data center architecture, but an operator's data center strategy should be considered part of a broader cloud computing strategy -- not the foundation, Nolle cautioned.

Before service providers map out their next-generation data centers, they must first decide how to create, monetize and fit advanced services into any new architecture, he said. Operators must also consider how legacy operational support systems (OSS) and business support systems (BSS) will be supported in a new architecture.

"A data center network is a slave to a data center architecture, which is the interplay of the IP components, and data center architecture is a slave to application architecture," Nolle said. "You can't do this from the bottom up because you don't have any idea what the high-level mission is. You run the risk of having facilities that don't match any mission."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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WFT Cloud eliminates both planned and unplanned downtime with active data center architectures. It optimizes the infrastructure availability and performance by dynamically load balancing workloads across arrays and data centers. It reduces cost and improve efficiency by unifying high availability and disaster recovery processes into a streamline capability.
This is a little bit misleading, as anyone that's worked in networking knows the dangers of completely flattening the network. There is now a networking layer within the servers (eg. between VMs or Containers), and then the three layer model (Access-Dist-Core) is now becoming Leaf-Spine.