Building a foundation for the networks of the future

The future of the network is being fueled by the increasingly distributed nature of data and applications. It will be defined by what many in the industry, including IDC, refer to as the “Third Era” of innovation and growth.

Over the last decade storage and compute technologies have evolved dramatically but the network has remained relatively unchanged.

The explosion of mobile, social and cloud technologies as well as the emergence of a data-driven culture have defined new requirements for agile data centers supporting an explosion of horizontally scaled-out applications. The status quo as we know it is about to get turned on its head.

Looking back

Before we explain all the changes networking and IT are about to undergo, it makes sense to first look at where the network is now, and where it’s been. You might be asking yourself: If we’re already in the Third Era – what were the First and the Second Eras?

The First Era was defined by mainframes creating monolithic IT infrastructure. This meant that storage, compute, networking and applications were bought and managed as all-in-one packages.

The Second Era was heralded by the introduction and meteoric rise in popularity of the personal computer, leading to increased strain on networking systems. To keep up with the increasing demand for computing, companies focused on individual storage, compute and networking components to build the highest-performing networks. Everything became virtualised, except the network and multiple physical networks were still needed to complete tasks. During this era, we saw the growth of the IT giants, like Cisco, Oracle and EMC.

With increasing stress on networks, legacy infrastructure can no longer support the dynamic needs of Third Era networks. Machine-to-machine traffic is exploding, applications are scaling-out instead of scaling-up, and the data, which organisations want to analyse, is geographically dispersed. Networking architectures must evolve to become application aware in order to keep pace with the changing landscape of the Third Era.

To be successful, networks of the future must possess these three characteristics: agility, integrated security, and resiliency. But how can that be accomplished?

Building a foundation for the future

Amidst the many challenges of today’s industry, these requirements can only be achieved by creating a strong technical foundation based on three pillars:

  • Dynamic Physical Transport: In short, something has to move the information. The rate of application and data growth and their rapidly changing characteristics means that designers can no longer cement this connectivity layer of the data center at the time of design. Dynamic physical transport means this connectivity can scale horizontally, be easily modified, without re-cabling or redesign, and secured to support new application traffic patterns or needs. Networks today are designed with a static physical transport, defined by its physical cabling, and can only distribute application traffic evenly (or at least attempt to). When it comes time to grow the physical connectivity (i.e. a new application or growth in exsisting applications), the data center network often needs to be redesigned and re-cabled, a very high operational cost and a disruption to the applications and users. A dynamic physical transport can organise itself based on knowledge of what the applications need and, at the same time, isolate traffic. This allows better capacity utilisation and provides improved security. In addition, the transport can be easily and incrementally scaled to add more connectivity and capacity as needed.
  • Intelligent Control: In addition to a data plane there must also be a control plane. To be successful, Third Era control planes must be capable of representing network resources and capabilities to application workloads and cloud orchestration/management platforms in a way they can understand and leverage. This is called abstraction, and it is a critical function of a Third Era control plane. Applications do not, and should not, understand network resource internals (like routing tables, “TCAMs”, buffers/queues, etc.), but they should be able to easily express to the network what they care about: latency, bandwidth, or isolation from other workloads. A Third Era control plane will take that information and intelligently figure out how to leverage the available network resources to satisfy those demands.
  • Integration: With a highly dynamic, software-controllable physical infrastructure, and a control plane that represents the physical and logical network topology in a way that application workload systems like vSphere from VMware can understand and control, the last remaining piece is automation. Integration of the control plane to the various workload management and cloud orchestration systems allows for the behaviour of the network to be automated, saving valuable time, decreasing the expense of manual network engineering and drastically reducing error rates. Integration is more than just exposing APIs. The network control plane must be architected specifically as a platform that is controlled by multiple external systems leveraging highly flexible functional programming (e.g. Python scripting) that is familiar to the DevOps community. This integration ability allows for data center designers to fully automate production workloads because the workloads themselves can express their connectivity needs, and the network can respond with minimal human intervention.

As the road to a new data and application era is paved, successful data center networks must embrace these three key pillars. First, they must dynamically render logical topologies that are application and workload aware to leverage and optimise the full capacity of the network. Second, they must provide intelligent control, enabling data and applications to express resource requirements.

Finally they must offer integration with workload management and cloud orchestration systems to streamline workflows, provide automation and reduce operational complexity.

Only when networks can deliver on all three pillars will they be able to support the agility, scalability and resiliency required of Third Era deployments.

Rich Napolitano, CEO of Plexxi