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Less cloud hype, more automation on network pros' tech wish list

Network pros' tech wish list for 2016 includes less hype around the cloud, and more automation and virtualization in switches.

While wishing doesn't make things come true, that doesn't stop optimistic network operators from at least trying. Items on their 2016 tech wish list include uniform standards for the Internet of Things, increased virtualization in switches, more network automation and less hype around cloud computing.

Most experts agree that the IoT is big. Gartner predicted that 25 billion devices, ranging from household appliances to commercial machinery, will be connected to the Internet by 2020. That's up from 4.9 billion this year.

With so much to connect to corporate networks, John Mulhall, information technology manager for Sno-Isle Libraries, based in Marysville, Wash., wants the industry to rally around a single interoperability standard for IoT.

Sno-Isle Libraries, which has 21 community libraries spread out across Washington's Snohomish and Island counties, wants to control lighting, heating and air conditioning from a central control panel in the organization's headquarters. Having a standard in place that all vendors would follow for connecting things over IP would be a godsend, Mulhall said.

"As a public agency, I only want to invest tax dollars once and make sure I'm investing them wisely," Mulhall said. Standards let an IT department tell vendors that "if you're going to bring some of your stuff into the workplace, here's what it has to support."

Mulhall is following two interoperability protocols -- one from the AllSeen Alliance and the other from the Open Interconnect Consortium. The former is an open source, cross-industry group, while major technology companies lead the latter.

More network automation, virtualization in switches on tech wish list

The wish list of Joe Rogers, associate director of network engineering at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, focuses on the heart of data center networking. He wants virtualized operating systems (OSes) in the 4,000 access switches the school uses in a network that covers 200 buildings over a 1.5-square-mile area. Most of the access hardware is Cisco Catalyst, and Brocade FCX and ICX gear.

Today, taking down switches for an OS upgrade is a huge pain, because the school can't afford redundant hardware for every switch. Exacerbating the problem is the variety of devices that depend on the network. They range from PCs and mobile devices to fire alarms and card access systems.

Separating the switch OS from the hardware and running it on a virtual machine would make it possible to minimize outages by building redundancy into the switch. For example, network operators could upgrade the OS while the hardware continues to run on another copy of the software.

"That [virtualization in switches] would be huge on my list," Rogers said.

Rogers is also hoping for more automation in the access switches, routers and wireless controllers at the university. Today, USF developers use Puppet, an open source system management tool, to write scripts that automate some tasks. Having those capabilities built into the hardware would simplify management significantly.

"That would be really cool," Rogers said.

Bring the cloud back to Earth

Cool is not how Mulhall describes the hype around the cloud. Media stories favorable to vendors often lead C-level executives or board members into believing that switching from on-premises applications to the cloud automatically cuts costs. Unfortunately, no technology is a panacea.

"I think the vendors can do a better job of coming into an organization and talking in real numbers about your total cost of ownership and return on investment," he said.

The cloud is an option for Sno-Isle, as it plans a major consolidation of the two-dozen servers running its core business application, called the Polaris Integrated Library System. Developed by Innovative Interfaces, Polaris powers all interactions between the libraries and their patrons, allowing card holders to check books in and out, manage online accounts used to search and reserve materials, and even determine how much they may owe in fines for overdue books.

Mulhall believes Innovative Interfaces' cloud option is more expensive than running Polaris on premises. "It works well for really small organizations, but once you start to scale up to a large organization, the cloud solution doesn't really pencil out," he said.

As an alternative, Sno-Isle might run parts of Polaris in the cloud and the rest on a converged system that uses virtualization to combine compute, storage and networking in a single box. Nutanix is one of the hardware vendors Sno-Isle is considering.

Less expensive networking gear

Less expensive networking is also on Rogers' wish list. Running a network as large as USF's is expensive, so he's always looking for cheaper hardware. The school employs 40 GbE for server connectivity in the data center and 100 GbE as the core of the campus' wide area network.

"Unfortunately, 100 gigs is still fairly expensive, so as far as a wish list item, I can always ask for 100 gigs to be cheaper," Rogers said.

Rogers and Mulhall are unlikely to get everything they want in 2016. But it doesn't hurt to ask and hope that some vendors are listening.

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