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Paving the way for the flat network

Is it time for data center networks to shed a tier?

By , Network World
September 13, 2010 12:05 AM ET

Network World - All of a sudden, data center networking has gone from ho-hum to hot.

10G Ethernet shakes network design to the core

The status quo -- that hierarchical, three-tier network that has dominated the data center since the late 1990s – is being threatened, as enterprises move toward a virtualized, service-oriented, scaled-out, converged infrastructure.

The question facing enterprise IT architects and planners today is whether to stick with three tiers or to flatten out the network in order to improve performance and ultimately save money.

From the vendor perspective, companies like Brocade, HP and Juniper Networks are pushing hard for the flat network. After all, if enterprises decide to go flat, they will need to buy new data center switches and that opens up an opportunity to displace Cisco, which for years has been all but synonymous with the data center network.

"Even companies with Cisco Catalyst switches have to re-qualify their data centers and, to go into flat network mode, they'll have to look at all brand new equipment. This is a huge opportunity for others to come and take the data center network away from Cisco" says Andre Kindness, senior analyst for enterprise networking at Forrester Research.

Cisco, of course, has next-generation plans of its own, built around its Nexus switches. And going head-to-head against industry powerhouse Cisco might also backfire against some of the more vulnerable network vendors.

Kindness says the survivability of some of these vendors could even be at stake. As servers, storage and the network converge, if these companies don't get themselves into the data center network, the rest of their businesses could be affected, he adds.

From the IT side, the allure of the flat network is being able to deploy products purpose-built for automation, convergence and virtualization. The promise is a much simplified, fabric-based architecture from which enterprises will enjoy dramatic performance improvements as well as streamlined operational chores, and expenses.

"The data center network hasn't been this exciting in probably 10 years," Kindness says. And enterprise network planners are sitting up and taking notice.

"This is a brand-new game, with the latest and greatest new technology and everybody has their specialties. The data center network definitely warrants a fresh look. We can't rely on old assumptions anymore," says John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass.

"Clearly all the switch vendors are racing to keep up with what's happening in the data center – and nobody has it quite right just yet, Turner says. "Some of these products are literally being released to customers with the paint still wet on them."

Fun, but no games

Jim Metzler, vice president of IT consulting firm Ashton, Metzler & Associates, says industry trade show Interop is a barometer of how the buzz around flat architectures has put the excitement back into networking.

In 2008, Metzler organized a session entitled, "Is There Anything Left to Say about the Local Area Network." The answer: Not a whole lot.

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