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Are Data Centers Going Soft?

Competing visions foresee different paths to next-generation networks

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The words “data center” may still conjure up images of so-called big iron processors, but that world is getting increasingly soft, and I don’t mean flabby.

Even processor king Intel says the move to software-defined infrastructures is critical and inevitable. Many view this trend as crucial to bridging physical and cloud-based data center infrastructure, where virtualization plays a commanding role and evokes dreams of a software defined data center (SDCC).

Offering its definition of the software defined data center (SDCC), Enterprise Management Associates earlier this year noted,  “In a perfect world, all resource and service provisioning and ongoing management would happen in a policy-driven fashion, where technical details—location, servers, storage, network, middleware—are hidden from the business.”

Of course, that perfect world does not yet exist, and EMA says you should regard SDCC “as a strategic direction” that will encompass technical, process, organizational and cultural changes.

While enterprises have made great strides in virtualizing servers and storage, when it comes to networking architecture, not so much. But that is changing and industry players and pundits are gearing up for a battle over visions and strategies on how to get there.

“Experts are in agreement that Software Defined Networking/Network Virtualization will make the network world more efficient and more agile, but opinions vary on the best path forward,” Network World Editor John Dix recently wrote.

VMware says it has closed the loop on the software defined data center (SDCC). No doubt the EMC-owned company can control two key legs -- virtual machine and storage infrastructure -- of the data center triad, but on the network side it still needs allies to truly close that loop.

But closing the loop requires network infrastructure that can unify the virtual and physical environments that will dominate data centers for years to come. VMware relies on partners such as Brocade for integrated, high-performance gateways that “convert tunnel connections into IP connections for bare metal servers running non-virtualized applications, physical storage devices or specialized hardware running network services.”

Bridging today’s data center with the SDCC of the future requires advances in network architecture that simplify management of both the physical network and the logical network.

Providing the flexibility to control the network programmatically will transform the network into a platform for innovation through new applications and services, notes Brocade.  Nobody is going to get to the SDCC without first getting their SDN act together. And few, if any, are going to make an overnight transition from the hierarchical networks that dominate today. It’s going to be a transition, most likely by bringing in SDN components as older equipment ages out. Then we can really begin to talk about the software-defined data center.

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