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Are we ready for the 'all-in-one happy box'?

Multipurpose devices for network infrastructure have features such as routing, load balancing and caching that should catch the fancy of networking professionals. So why exactly are some people skeptical of the "all-in-one happy box"?

SAN FRANCISCO -- At a roundtable discussion at the Burton Group's Catalyst Conference 2003 this week, four up-and-coming vendors answered questions about their virtualized infrastructure devices. Attendees were ambivalent about the devices, which came to be skeptically referred to as the "all-in-one happy box."

Think you're ready to try virtualization? Consider this advice from Burton Group analyst William Terrill.
  • Evaluate: Find out exactly what features and functions your environment is using, and parallel that when selecting devices.
  • Test: Know your requirements for peak load, security and features, and test the device with everything you'll need enabled.
  • Implement: Install the device in a non-critical but live application environment, and monitor its performance closely. Add new applications slowly.

The multipurpose devices being marketed by Array Networks, Inkra Networks, Nauticus Networks and Ranch Networks offer users the ability to replace multiple network devices with one piece of equipment. Typically, the devices offer such features as routing, load balancing, caching, VPN termination, intrusion detection and firewall capabilities.

Their biggest attraction is the ability to dynamically allocate processing power or bandwidth according to your company's demands and specifications. Processing is shifted to the processes that most need them on the fly, negating the need for overprovisioning devices, which saves time, work and money, said Burton Group analyst William Terrill.

The devices are partitioned via software management into "logical racks." Each rack has a separate, secure data flow but shares internal hardware with other partitions on the device. This consolidates many pieces of equipment into one, lowering cost and complexity and increasing performance, said Sanjay Dhawan, president and CEO of Fremont, Calif.-based Inkra Networks Inc.

Another benefit of the approach is ease of management, said Robert Supnick, vice president of engineering and chief technology officer of Nauticus Networks Inc., in Framingham, Mass. "Collapsing the vertical structure into multifunction and simplification of management translates into lower TCO [total cost of ownership], fewer people and therefore fewer mistakes," he said.

Ranch Networks Inc.'s offering is managed via a single Web-based graphical user interface. According to Brian Allain, president of the Morganville, N.J.-based company, adding load balancing or bandwidth management across a network is as easy as opening a browser window and making a few clicks.

Attendees voiced concerns about availability and the risks of putting all of a business' critical processes on one box. Allain countered, "Let's say you're using our box where you used to have five devices. Now, instead of having five power supplies, five fans, five sets of cables and all the connections that go with that, you only have one. The sheer number of components that are capable of failing is decreased by a factor of five."

Users remained doubtful, despite promises of high availability and redundancy. They cited the need for geographical diversity and independent backup systems.

Stephan Baur, network and telecom strategist with Bank of America, raised an additional issue that resonated with other attendees. "My organization is broken up into many 'kingdoms,' all with different rulers and different budgets," he said. He wondered how it would be possible to bring in one box to handle functions managed by separate teams of people spread all over the globe.

Don Johnson, a network services director for the state of New Jersey, said this road has been traveled before. "It's just another form of the convergence that's bound to happen everywhere," he said, "only this time it's not necessarily of technology, but of processes and people in the enterprise."


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