More than just the £millions: the ‘hidden’ benefits of next-gen data centre networks

Inevitably it’s the cost advantages of next-generation (or ‘open’) data centre networks which have grabbed the early headlines.

That’s fair enough – after all, it’s price which gets most nex-gen network conversations started, and indeed the majority of projects up and running. And the numbers being reported by the mega-scale data centre operators which pioneered this technology are truly staggering (see Facebook nets billions in savings from Open Compute Project for example).

But cost is far from the only driver of change. And as the owners, operators and users of more typical data centre operations start to seriously assess this new opportunity, the other (non-cost) advantages are starting to make their own case for next-gen data centre networking.

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1. Operational Performance & Efficiency

There is no doubt that, cost aside, the current network operational models have significant faults. The workflows inherent in modern virtualised server technologies are generally far in advance of those currently being used to manage most network switches.

Next-gen networking closes that gap by allowing you to manage your switches with the same tools and applications as your servers. All the open network operating systems we discuss with clients have the advantage of close ties with server virtualisation platforms (VMware, Hyper-V, Citrix XEN).

The automation, orchestration and tight integration that this enables can dramatically reduce the time and cost of managing data centre compute, storage and network functionality. It can also produce dramatic reductions in power and cooling requirements.

2. Modularity & Interoperability

Modularity has never been much of a feature in closed networking solutions. The vendors pretty much require you to fully buy into their entire eco-system. This not only limits choice now and in the future, but also has profound implications for programmability and flexibility.

In contrast, the emphasis in open data centre networks is firmly on modularity and interoperability. Instead of SDN applications being baked into the OS, these are typically being produced as standalone applications that sit on top of the switch OS. As the network owner this means you can choose to install them, not install them, or choose another application all together. Put simply, the modularity of open networking delivers customer choice, control and, ultimately, system stability.

3. The Colo Advantage

Arguably, colo and cloud service providers stand to gain even more than most.

These companies operate on the frontline of network traffic growth and fluctuation. Adding ever more hardware and software may postpone the inevitable service and performance problems, but it certainly won’t resolve them. Instead, providers are increasingly on the lookout for smarter, more innovative solutions. Conscious of the relentless upward trajectory of network traffic, they are looking to build data centre networks that will have the flexibility to deliver not only today, but also in the future.

There is increasing agreement that this means choosing a platform that avoids vendor lock-in, enabling them to be more flexible with future choices. Not only will open networking with a Linux-based network OS transform flexibility within the data centre, but there are plenty of examples out there which demonstrate that this can be achieved at the same time as improving service performance levels. In these circumstances, the price / performance ratio is inevitably better than traditional networking solutions.

The open networking approach can also drive essential innovation. It can helping providers to develop protocols for simplified on-boarding and management of customers; for rapid upscaling and downscaling; or to extend their portfolio of offerings in countless other ways built on the flexibility that open networking delivers.

In short, their underlying infrastructures can become an enabler rather than a limiting factor.

4. Beyond the Data Centre

The move towards open networks is undoubtedly focused on the data centre at the moment. But there’s no reason to assume that the technology won’t extend into other areas as it matures and develops.

As open networking extends into the campus for example, the benefits of cost, scaleability, flexibility and efficiency will multiply even further.

5. Flexible implementation

The advantages may be dramatic, but the transition doesn’t have to be. The very nature of ‘open’ means that implementation and transition can be managed in a way which best suits you and your business.

For a complete switchover, vendors apps built on top of an open base can ensure a seamless migration to the open platform. But a sequential transition over time is just as viable, with the principle of interoperability meaning that new open PoDs can be inserted into your legacy network one at a time.

Nor does next-generation mean an overnight transformation in the way you manage your data centre networks operations. With carefully designed operational end-user interfaces, it is easy to ensure everything is as familiar to your network engineers as it ever was.

Finally, lower hardware costs also allow you to think further ahead and to adopt new technologies earlier, further improving performance and accelerating your network expansion / upgrade programmes (choosing 10G over 1G for example).

6. And yes… cost

Of course it would be remiss in any review of the benefits of next-generation networking not to come back to the financial case.

And there’s no doubt the impact can be significant. A saving of up to 40-60% is often quoted, and that is certainly achievable. The opportunity to turn £1million data centre networks into £500k data centre networks (or less) certainly focuses minds.

These savings are achieved across CAPEX and OPEX. The open switches themselves can cost 75% less than their legacy equivalents. Large savings are achievable with third-party DAC (Direct Attached Copper), AOC (Active Optical Cables) or optics at a fraction of the cost of proprietary cables from legacy vendors. And the operating systems are competitively priced with fixed subscription models.

An additional advantage is that costs are transparent throughout, with none of the ambiguity which has been associated with legacy network models for many years.

So the real benefits of next-gen data centre networks are…?

Cost begins most conversations about next-generation networking, and it closes most deals. But this is far from the whole story.

As enterprise-level businesses begin to explore the concepts and technologies of open, they are finding close parallels with huge range of advantages they have enjoyed from an open server market for many years. In servers, the combination of Linux and virtualization has driven customer choice, flexibility and value. Now open networking (which after all is also underpinned by Linux-based network operating systems and network virtualization) seems certain to bring the same to networking.

And while many might consider next-gen networking to be still at the ‘early adopter’ stage, developments in both hardware and software over the last 12 months suggest the age of mass adoption might just be upon us.

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