Networking basics: The importance of strong networking support

When working on server and storage enhancements IT departments can’t afford to overlook virtual networking support; it’s important to ensure the data centre is up to the challenge.

At a recent Hewlett-Packard (HP) Gold partner conference, the speakers went to great lengths to explain how products being sold to consumers are creeping into everyday business computing. The comments were referring to user devices and not back-end infrastructure.

Over the next few months, HP’s marketing arm will swing into action, and the UK will have HP’s vision presented to them. At one level, the marketing effort will help drive the adoption of increasingly smaller portable devices such as iPads and Blackberrieswhich will, in turn, drive changes within data centres that support application and data delivery. The extra demands from a flood of portable devices will bring about detailed examinations of server and storage resources so IT can be certain that its data centre network support infrastructure is up to the task.

Networking basics not to be overlooked

Whether an IT department is evaluating the required infrastructure for an on-premises data centre or evaluating the capabilities of a cloud service provider, data centre managers can’t overlook networking basics. Innovations sought by Facebook in its Prineville, Ore., data centre and through its Open Compute Project are a benchmark for energy efficiency, but little mention is made of networking, whilst great play is given to racks, servers and cooling.


However, networking is as important as the server and storage infrastructure which more often than not takes the headlines. Vendors are increasingly highlighting their virtual networking capabilities because they wish to present themselves as complete data centre solution providers. For HP, an equally performing networking support design will complement the company’s server and storage offerings and meet its overall performance expectations. As with servers and storage, networking is becoming increasingly virtualised and can offer the same attributes promoted by the server and storage marketers.

In fact, the vendors leading the pack now talk in terms of the virtualised networking fabric. Cisco Systems has its “Data Centre Fabric Vision” and HP has its “FlexFabric” virtual I/O network. Both products offer the same traits found in all virtualisation technologies: agility, scalability, reduced cost, centralised management and so on. The key difference is that Cisco partners with others to provide a complete data centre solution, whereas HP has all the ingredients under its direct control.

At the execution level, however, how data centre networking basics are approached is critical to success. Cisco’s heritage is networking. HP’s is hardware, and VMware’s is server virtualisation. In a recent webinar hosted by HP, much was made of the storage capability, but proportionately, only a fraction of the time was spent on how the networking will glue everything together.

Networking support and virtualisation switching stretches operational benefits

The commercial background to all investment decisions for a CIO considering a new or upgraded data centre is the business requirement. CEOs will expect security to be tight and meet external standards and they will want to see each element of a decision contributing positively to the company’s overall financial goals. If the CIO can further stretch the operational benefits, then investment proposals have a better chance of adoption.

Virtualising the switching infrastructure brings advantages, and vendors will draw you into the Top Trumps features discussion. One key feature of switch virtualisation is that it breaks the traditional silo approach. Where once set up and tested with policies in place for both automated provisioning and management, there is now a decreasing need for the depth and breadth of networking expertise associated with traditionally switched networks. Networking support management tools now allow the switching infrastructure to be monitored in the same way as server and storage.

Vendors make great play of their management software APIs to allow integration into existing tools. The operational and commercial potential here is clear: reduced support and administration costs because of less depth and/or breadth of personnel being required; reduced deployment times as the server and/or application plus associated switching.

Companies need experts in design, assessment and selection, but these disciplines are converging and the expertise required to manage them is converging too.

In a recent customer meeting, an IT director and his team were grappling with the concept of virtual switching as they tried to establish whether it was part of a data centre upgrade. The most striking element of the conversation was the resistance from the networking representative. Mentally stepping back from the conversation, I concluded that the objections presented had little difference to the objections I had heard from server administrators when virtualisation was under discussion some years ago. Traditional engineers like to see and touch something physical. They become wary when technological advancements start reducing their banks of hardware and transforming their once safe, complicated environment into a policy-driven automated world viewed from a screen.

Networking is the last bastion of the physical network that will migrate to virtualisation. Whether a single or mixed vendor approach is taken, the key benefits that organisations have enjoyed with server and storage virtualisation will be found in networking virtualisation too.

CIOs face two battles to convince themselves that their virtual layer 2 and 3 switching will bring benefits: (1) the battle to understand and trust the virtual networking support concept and (2) the battle to convince their team that this direction is a worthwhile step forward.

The benefits brought about by network virtualisation are well worth the fight.

Andrew Cross is the sales director at reseller Sol-Tec and a contributor to

Proceeds from this article are being donated to sponsor Nik Topham in the 125-mile Devizes to Westminster canoeing marathon challenge to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. Further donations can be made on the Just Giving website.

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