Cut network complexity with Ethernet fabrics and SDN, says Brocade

Brocade says abstraction layers, such as Ethernet fabrics and software-defined networking (SDN), can eliminate complexity from the network

In an age of innovation in the technology industry, we are blessed with new infrastructure on what feels like a weekly basis, bringing better performance, scalability and reliability to IT environments.

But with every innovation comes extra complexity. Be it the new iPhone 5 or latest Android tablet providing yet another device accessing corporate data, through to the ramping up of server virtualisation and more virtual machines than ever before, each added technology creates more hurdles for the IT department.

The element that holds all of these things together and suffers the most from the extra complexity is the network. It is responsible for connecting not only the internal infrastructure and ensuring smooth movement of data, but also for communicating with the outside world.

Many networking companies have come up with their ways to deal with the growing pressure. Brocade outlined its own approach during its Analyst and Technology Day conference at its headquarters in San Jose, California.

“Before for CIOs, the focus was on systems of record, things like finance applications, databases applications, manufacturing applications,” said Dave Stevens, CTO at Brocade. 

“There is a change happening, with individual users effectively becoming their own IT departments, assembling their own information in their own solution. These so-called systems of engagement that are happening out there create tremendous problems for CIOs, as the traffic is so unpredictable.”

Change in approach to the network

“From a networking perspective, that is incredibly difficult but that is what we are asking CIOs to do inside their networks. One of the things that has become clear, as we strive for this next generation of network, is simplicity and architecting out this complexity is going to be key.”

Stevens said is wasn’t a case of more training around these systems or losing out on specific features, but a change in approach to the network.

“It is not about masking the complexity,” Stevens said. “We can’t get simplicity into networks by more training of technicians, smarter technicians, more highly trained, highly skilled workforces that just mask the complexity that is just inherent in all these systems.”

“We actually have to create an abstraction layer that is easier to view.”

This is not a new concept. As Stevens himself pointed out, it had been done many times before to great success, from the days when command lines and DOS was changed to Windows, through to the desktop PC becoming an iPad.

They key is not to lose what capabilities reside underneath the hood but create a layer over the top that makes them easier to read and simpler to use.

This is what Brocade wants to do with its products.

Ethernet fabrics

The networking firm’s two major areas it believes will achieve this, and where it has spent a lot of investment in the past two years, is in Ethernet fabrics and software-defined networking.

“Ethernet fabric is taking the tremendously complex networks that we have built over the last 20 years and creating a picture for users of a flat layer two service area that is ideal for virtualisation, easier to manage and less expensive to implement,” said Stevens.

Previously switches on a network had worked independently, directing traffic through a single transfer point or STP. Switches that work as a fabric work with one another instead, directing traffic in the most suitable way, rather than sticking to a single method that could cause problems elsewhere on the network.

This means network administrators can see view the network as a whole, rather than having to go switch by switch.

Brocade calls its fabric "Virtual Cluster Switching" (VCS). It launched a new addition – the Brocade VDX 8770 – to its Ethernet fabric switch family at the event. In doing so, Brocade raised its game to bring more functionality to those looking to embrace the fabric philosophy.

Software-defined networking

Software-defined networking (SDN) is another layer on top of that.

“It is a relatively new technology but the idea is to add a software abstraction layer for provisioning, management and control on top of the physical infrastructure,” explained Stevens.

This means that, as well as having the fabric to bring your network into once place, you can then play with that network to ensure traffic is being sent in the right direction. It ensures storage is used in the best way or virtual machines are running in the right place.

As Stevens said, SDN is still in its early days, but many of the big technology companies are excited about it. VMware and Cisco have each acquired companies in the sector in recent few months to develop their own SDN products.

With more people working on SDN, there is greater opportunity for developers and a whole raft of applications that could be built to help enterprises and cloud service providers. More knowledge of your network means more power to improve it and, in the service provider space at least, it could also mean monetising it with new services.

Combining Ethernet fabrics and SDN to cut complexity

Brocade is clear it believes both Ethernet fabrics and SDN should work together.

“We are trying to get from this idea of physical, complex infrastructure to something that is simpler and easier to run and is automatically provisioned and self-managing. That is the migration from traditional infrastructure to fabrics,” Stevens said. 

“Then, on top of that, trying to move from manual configuration, manual control, manual box by box processes in a datacentre to take this magnificent set of tools coming to light in the industry.

“This is how you get to a software vision; a software driven, fully virtualised datacentre with abstraction layers on top of technology.”

The vision is it its early days but Brocade got behind SDN two years ago, has been a leader in the fabric space for some time and seems to have a company well aligned behind a clear strategy. Now it is time for the firm to convince CIOs to adopt it.

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