Change. It's not just a hollow political slogan. In enterprise networking, change is the new reality. For years, networking has been static in architecture and basically standardized, with Cisco Systems Inc. controlling the market and most networks.
But top networking news in 2010 reflected enormous change. Even while in the midst of the worst economy in 70 years, innovation and shifting market forces have made networking one of the most dynamic technology sectors to follow. What’s more, Cisco's unquestioned position in the network has been challenged by serious competition. Enterprises are reinventing their campus and data center networks. And veteran networking professionals are scrambling to keep on top of all the volatility.
What follows is a list of some of the top networking news trends we observed this year.
MULTI-VENDOR NETWORKS: CISCO SEES MEGA COMPETITION
In 2010, we saw HP and Juniper Networks emerge as robust competitors to Cisco's dominant market position in the networking world. Juniper first turned its attention to enterprise networks a couple of years ago, when it launched its portfolio of EX Ethernet switches and its well-regarded Junos operating system. HP made its big move in 2009 by acquiring 3Com and its broad portfolio of H3C enterprise networking products. HP laid out its road map for integrating 3Com into its existing ProCurve networking product line this past spring, drawing good reviews.
In 2010, Juniper’s and HP's efforts at competing with Cisco head-on coalesced into real traction, with analysts and consultants wholeheartedly recommending for the first time that enterprises give serious consideration to HP and Juniper as alternatives to Cisco in the data center and the campus LAN.
In turn, enterprises began introducing real choices into their procurement processes for the first time in years. In our conversations with networking pros, we found an increasing number of users who are deploying multi-vendor networks, mixing Cisco with Juniper, HP or other enterprise-class vendors. Others are discovering that they can save money by deploying cheap, commodity switches in certain parts of their network instead of paying a premium for a Cisco switch. Some of these enterprises backed into multi-vendor networks this year, as persistent Cisco supply chain problems led to long product lead times and forced some networking pros to buy alternative products from rival vendors. Whatever the reason, our daily conversations with networking pros often reveal a willingness to try Juniper or HP Networking over Cisco -- despite the networking giant’s strong hold on the market.
DATA CENTER NETWORK REVOLUTION
Whether or not you think cloud computing and virtualization are overhyped, the technologies engendered an explosion of innovation in the data center networking space. The days of competing on speeds and feeds alone are over.
At this year's Interop Las Vegas, networking vendors made it clear that a new wave of data center networking innovation would be forthcoming, when a vendor panel predicted that flattened, Layer 2 networks are the way of the future.
Cisco and other vendors also started pushing hard on the convergence of data and storage transport in data centers. We explored how most enterprises will start converging at the server rack but won't necessarily push that convergence into the core any time soon. Then we examined how the convergence of data and storage traffic will force networking and storage pros to step out of their silos and collaborate. Finally, we questioned: Can data and storage convergence go too far?
In the process, we also looked at how standards bodies are considering countless new technologies to support all the changes in data center networking -- and how pre-standard products are already hitting the market. Cisco and Brocade have both embraced TRILL as a replacement of spanning tree protocol in data centers. Both vendors are also heavily marketing Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) as a convergence technology -- no surprise since they are the two top Fibre Channel vendors in the world. Finally, Brocade rolled out a new line of Layer 2 data center switches, which it claims will allow enterprises to build large Layer 2 data center fabrics.
WLAN: 802.11N GOES MAINSTREAM, VENDORS FOCUS ON DELIVERYING RELIABLE WIRELESS ACCESS LAYER
Last year's IEEE ratification of 802.11n signaled that wireless LAN technology was ready to be a mainstream access layer technology in campus networks. With ratification came high-volume sales, which translated into reduced prices for basic access point technology. Now, vendors are focused on delivering technologies that make WLAN reliable enough to serve as the primary means of network access in enterprises. Gartner noted this new focus in its latest WLAN Magic Quadrant, stating that advanced management technologies that guarantee WLAN performance and availability make up the new battleground in the market.
RF spectrum analysis, which allows enterprises to detect and remediate sources of interference, is emerging as a critical element of WLAN infrastructure as vendors try to make networks reliable enough to be primary access technology. Vendors like Cisco integrated spectrum analysis into their infrastructure in 2010, making interference remediation more automated. The integration of advanced management technologies like spectrum analysis and the increase in bandwidth associated with 802.11n are prompting vendors to reverse the trend toward highly centralized, controller-based wireless networks. Instead, the notion of "fat" access points is making a comeback, as vendors recognize that backhauling all data and network management to a control can lead to bottlenecks. Motorola was the latest vendor to distribute functionality out to the edge when it announced that it would run the code for its WLAN controllers on its access points, allowing for access points to manage themselves in certain deployments.
Finally, since enterprises will be blurring the line between wired and wireless networks in campus LANs, network managers will need integrated network management technologies to prevent network operations from getting too complex. Unfortunately, wireless LAN performance management remains complex because Wi-FI client variation makes it hard for engineers to predict how individual devices will interact with their networks.
NEW TRENDS IN NETWORK SECURITY
The proliferation of Web 2.0 applications and the ongoing expansion of server virtualization led to some shifts in network security in 2010. Next-generation firewalls, technologies that offer visibility into Layer 7 application traffic, have become more popular as enterprises grapple with Web 2.0 application use, prompting experts to predict that next-generation firewalls will see increased adoption. Of course, traditional stateful firewalls will still play an important role in networks, but the two are likely to be married in a unified network security strategy.
Network security vendors also tackled the growing complexities of securing virtual infrastructure this year. Finally, we explored how some enterprises are trying to consolidate their network security technology to simplify operations.
Amidst all of these shifting dynamics in network security, Cisco introduced its Borderless Networks strategy, which emphasizes ubiquitous and secure network access regardless of location, device and connection type. But Cisco's customers appear divided on just how cohesive the Borderless Networks strategy is. The marketing hype surrounding the Borderless Networks message, along with the cancellation of some network security products, has prompted some customers to question Cisco's overall network security strategy. Cisco has heard the message and put a special emphasis on articulating its network security strategy in the latter part of the year.
STAY ON TOP OF YOUR CAREER IN A TOUGH ECONOMY
In a tough economy, building and maintaining your skills and achieving key technology certifications have become a double-edged sword. You need to stay competitive in the labor marketplace, but skills development and certifications can be expensive, especially when money is tight. This year, we explored how IOS licensing changes by Cisco have made it challenging to build router emulators. We also talked to engineers about how the perceived value of some networking certifications may have been tarnished by cheaters who exploit things like testkings and braindumps. Finally, we talked to veteran engineers about tips and tricks for building a home network lab.