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Cisco, Extreme join OpenStack to address cloud network technology gap

Cloud networking has taken a back seat to compute and storage in the cloud computing industry, but vendors like Cisco and Extreme know that cloud network standards are essential to successful enterprise deployment of public and private clouds.

The networking industry and networking professionals have taken a backseat to their server and storage counterparts in recent years as virtualization and cloud computing have transformed enterprise application and service delivery. But as cloud computing progresses from an overhyped marketing term to a widely deployed enterprise architecture, networking vendors will try to climb into the driver's seat and articulate the importance of cloud network technology.

Already the exclusion of the networking industry from the early development of virtualization, a basic building block of cloud computing, has thrown up roadblocks to virtualization's scalability and portability. VMware has abstracted network switching into the server with its vSwitch, forcing networking vendors to develop technologies that cope with the loss of visibility and control over virtual switching and to ensure that when virtual machines migrate between servers or even data centers, port level security, storage and management settings follow.

Now networking vendors want to develop and prove the relevancy of networking technology in the cloud -- before they have to scramble to build retroactive solutions as they did with server virtualization. The industry saw some evidence of this desire last week when Cisco Systems and Extreme Networks announced that they were joining OpenStack, a community of vendors and service providers that is developing open source software for a cloud computing operating system.

OpenStack, founded by RackSpace Hosting and NASA, has focused on two core projects: OpenStack Compute and OpenStack Object Storage. Although cloud networks figure into both of these projects, it's clear that the community's focus is on creating software for the management of server and storage resources in the cloud.

Cloud network technology: Networking's critical contribution to cloud computing

But little attention has been paid to the abstraction of essential network capabilities in cloud environments. This lack of a cloud network focus has caused trouble for enterprises. The first problem is that many cloud providers have become islands on the Internet. That means that enterprises that subscribe to services from one provider later find it difficult to migrate to a second provider or distribute its resources across two providers.

In fact, if an enterprise wants to move its data from one cloud provider to another, the best option is File Transfer Protocol (FTP), according to David O'Berry, director of information technology for South Carolina's Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. "If you're telling me I have to FTP off one provider and upload to a second, that is a huge moat that I'm not going to be able to cross very often."

Cisco, which has been participating in OpenStack for some time but just became a formal contributor, would like to see that change.

"Right now [cloud] networking functionality is very basic. [If you are] spanning data centers, good luck, said Lew Tucker, Cisco's CTO for cloud technology.

"What we've been working on to date is making sure that network APIs can actually be exposed instead of it all being the most basic set that you have under a compute service. We're exploring with the rest of the community what a [cloud] networking service would look like. That's where our focus is going to be."


As that happens, O'Berry said the networking industry's heritage of standardization and interoperability needs to become a part of the cloud computing industry, especially since the virtualization software industry is so proprietary and closed.

"With all [the networking industry's] faults, you can still buy four switches from four different companies, and they can all talk to one another. It took us some time, but at least the networking industry can interoperate. When you get the abstracted [virtualization] space, that stuff gets very proprietary and closed," he said.

Tucker hesitated to outline Cisco's intended cloud networking contributions to OpenStack, saying that the community would decide on how to progress. But he noted the need for more sophisticated networking services within the cloud.

"[Enterprises] need the ability to have multiple virtual network segments in the cloud for secure applications," he said. "I think you're going to see other services start to arise. That's where we will be working with the community. Most of this is at the level of working to understand what the abstractions are for the network, how we want the network to appear in this virtualized space, and what APIs are. Then you work your way down to how you want to make sure you have effective implementations."

Keeping networks relevant with cloud network technologies

While networking vendors stress the need to solve cloud problems, their work in the cloud is just as much about keeping themselves relevant , said James Staten, vice president at Forrester Research.

"One of the things that all networking vendors are concerned about is the diminishing relevancy of the network," he said. "Because virtualization and cloud computing have come up through the server administrator ranks… there is this big concern  [in the networking community] that the way you solve problems with your application is by putting it on different infrastructure, giving it more memory, giving it more caching in application design. These are all decisions that don't have anything to do with the network."

The networking world is facing commoditization in the world of cloud computing partially because of how server and storage administrators view the network, Staten said.

"If you look at how these guys think: First you start with a flat network that has good bandwidth. Then they talk about making things perform on top of it. They don't say, 'Well, do we have the right network or the right network configuration?’ That's often an ancillary though. The networking vendors have to market the relevancy of the network, the configurability of the network and how network-specific requests should be present within the description of a [cloud] application."

Basically, networking vendors need to show the rest of the industry that the network isn't just plumbing, but it’s about sophisticated technologies that enterprises and service providers must abstract into the cloud.

"Networking needs to be able to say that when you build the profile of a database [for the cloud], there are things you should do in the network that ensure the database has strong performance. Don’t just assume you can throw more hardware at it. Don't assume that by having a faster network the problem is solved," State said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor.

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