Data center, cloud fabrics to heat up in 2012

Real world implementations driven by 10G servers, 40G networks, will emerge

There was a considerable amount of activity in the data center/cloud switching fabric arena in 2011. That is expected to continue in 2012, along with real world implementations of the next-generation IT technologies.

Read more: Fabric wars: Cisco vs. Brocade vs. Juniper

First, a quick review of what went down in fabric switching in 2011: Early in the year, Juniper launched its much anticipated QFabric switches, borne of the multiyear Project Stratus effort. In the spring, Cisco expanded its own FabricPath strategy with enhancements that extend it end-to-end, from the server network interface card to the network core - among them, multihop Fibre Channel-over-Ethernet (FCoE) on its Nexus 7000 core data center switch.

Word leaked out that Cisco's also working on a fabric switch line, based on merchant silicon, under the codename "Jawbreaker." Brocade announced its CloudPlex architecture, which depends on the company's VDX fabric switches and Fibre Channel SAN switches. HP unveiled its FlexNetwork architecture, which seeks to unite data center, campus and branch networking on the same switching fabric.

MORE OUTLOOK: See what else will happen in 2012

Arista endorsed a fabric plan based largely on stable industry standards instead of proprietary technology, and extended its low-latency switch line to support it. Enterasys, Extreme, Avaya and Alcatel-Lucent all enhanced their own fabric visions with new switches, software or both; and proposed fabric standards like TRILL and Shortest Path Bridging continued to gestate, even though a clear industry fissure was forming on which is more suited to the task.

Upstart Xsigo rolled out software designed to link all the servers in a data center virtually, allowing IT managers to reconfigure virtual machines and other resources without carrying out traditional networking tasks. And some software start-ups, like Infinetics, claimed they had a better fabric mousetrap than any of them.

Most of this activity is intended to "flatten" the data center network by removing extraneous tiers of switching and facilitate more "East/West" flow of traffic between server racks, rather than "North/South" to the core and back. This, in turn, will reduce latency, proponents say.

So what's on tap for 2012? Plenty, according to industry players.

Fabrics advances made in 2011 will be implemented in enterprise and service provider networks in 2012. Products announced last year will ship; 10G on server motherboards will be commonplace; expect to see more 40G Ethernet announced, shipped and installed; and virtualization to spread.

"Increased virtualization ratios are driving more increased capacities at the edge," says Shehzad Merchant, senior director of strategy for Extreme. "10G at the edge is going to really, really pick up and we're expecting 10G LAN-on-a-motherboard by early next year. Which means servers will ship with 10G by default. So when the edge goes to 10G, your core is going to 40G. 2012 will be a big year for 40G."

And fabrics will be as diverse as the organizations that implement them. Despite the standards under development, one fabric size does not fit all, according to Dell.

"We believe there is not one answer here from a fabric perspective," says Arpit Joshipura, executive director in Dell's Networking group. Dell acquired data center switch maker Force10 Networks earlier this year. Some users will continue to implement a three-tier architecture, some a two-tier, others will shoot for a single switching tier; some will centralize their core, others will distribute it; some will implement FCoE to converge data and storage traffic, others will keep Fibre Channel and Ethernet separate and distinct; and so on.

"Going into 2012, all the stuff we talked about in 2011 will ramp up," Joshipura says. "We also see another disruption with the 10G servers coming out, it makes a perfect combination of 10G servers and 40G fabrics."

Joshipura also sees further IT automation coming next year, with one-click provisioning of bare metal servers and switches and VLANs, open scripting, virtual machine mobility, and so on.

"You need a layer of automation to manage it in real time and a layer of management for provisioning and setting it up," he says.

And investment in data center and cloud fabric start-ups will continue, and perhaps increase, in 2012. Venture capital firm Greylock Partners has investments in five data center companies right now, including Delphix in database virtualization and Pure Storage in enterprise data center flash arrays.

"The data center continues to be an important area of investment focus," says Asheem Chandna, a partner at Greylock. "There are probably some opportunities for new systems companies (in fabrics) in low latency, and also north of 40G - basically going into higher speeds."

Greylock invests in four to eight new enterprise companies a year, Chandna says, primarily in data center, cloud and associated fabrics. Chandna said a business plan around a fabric play to compete with Cisco's FabricPath and Juniper's QFabric "would be of interest" to Greylock.

"There are a limited number of teams that can execute on that," he says.

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