Deciphering the New Network at Interop

This week in Las Vegas, just about every networking vendor will release one of more press releases at Interop telling you about all of the latest and greatest products and technologies. Even for those that watch the industry closely, it can be difficult to squint through the details to figure out the differentiation between the product lines. From a size, density, power and performance standpoint, vendors leapfrog each other all of the time from one generation to the next. Thanks to the big trends of virtualization, cloud computing and the transition to higher speed architectures (10Gb Ethernet getting broad traction and 40Gb and 100Gb Ethernet products now starting to go into production environments), there are real areas to differentiate.

Ethernet is Open

Before looking at differentiation, there are statements that every vendor makes that users can spend less time analyzing. The first area is how “OPEN” a solution is. This is code from vendors to say that they are not Cisco. The attack on Cisco is that they will release functionality that has not gone through the standards process. While there is a nugget of truth in this attack, the reality is that Cisco is the market leader and is trying to solve customer problems. There are many standards bodies for networking and it can often take many years to bring a solution through the standards process. Cisco is sometimes aggressive at the standards groups, trying to turn its features into the standards. Cisco and other vendors do release products pre-standard, but Cisco is firmly committed to the standards process. Customers that are concerned of “lock-in” should be certain to make sure that features that they use have been ratified by the appropriate standards.

Cisco is not the only vendor that gets attacked with the “proprietary” attack – Juniper’s recent QFabric solution is a different architecture and therefore subject to arrows from the competition. While it is true that the interconnect chassis can only attach to Juniper switches, if you look at the full QFabric solution, interoperability with other switches is no different than other core networking switches. Every networking vendor that I have spoken with has a good story of working with the standards groups, so hopefully we can get beyond trying to say who is more open and focus on the value that solutions bring to customers.

Flat, Scalable and Manageable

Last week at Brocade’s analyst event, Brocade claimed stake to having the first “Fabric” solution for networks with the VCS solution that it had announced a year earlier. While I’m not a big fan of the fabric term, the underlying principles of creating an environment that allows for greater connectivity and bandwidth between nodes is a good one. Since it can be difficult to determine which marketing term corresponds with the replacement of Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), I created a wiki to list all of the various fabric solutions for Layer 2 and Layer 3 networks (additions and corrections are welcome).

HP made a big FlexNetwork strategy announcement today at Interop (see PR). HP’s use of Flex in all of its networking products is to highlight the agility that it gives to customers. This includes the support of multiple standards when there are more than one such as TRILL and SPB to replace STP. HP’s networking portfolio is a mix of ProCurve and 3COM products. HP’s announcement includes the new A10500 line of switches. These switches use the 3COM IRF technology, which allows multiple switches to be managed as a single device (up to 4 of the new core switches where previous core switches only supported 2 in a group, top-of-rack switches can have larger IRF groups). The switches are also demonstrating 40Gb Ethernet and 100Gb Ethernet capable. As I mentioned in my article about 16Gb Fibre Channel, the adoption of new generations of Ethernet typically takes 7-10 years. Vendors are still sorting out the optic and cabling options for 40GbE and the price and power usage will both come down over time to make them more attractive to users. Making the management of larger, more complex networks is critical for vendors. HP’s Intelligent Management Center 5 product promises to converge the management of physical and virtual networks. Users should be sure to test drive management tools to be sure that the “single pane-of-glass” meets requirements. Administrators of virtual environments are more likely to look for convergence of server, storage and network management; a solution that HP is well positioned to deliver.

Finding the Right Solution

Customers are fortunate to have more choices than ever before. All of the Ethernet switches work, so users must determine how much of the new architectures to adopt and how to balance between legacy installations and new deployments. The adoption of cloud/virtual networking will dominate the networking space for the next 3-5 years. Networking teams should be sure to understand the people and processes changes that will go along with the new technologies that are chosen; challenging vendors will need to prove that the training and management of a new solutions is worth the cost of moving off of familiar equipment and tools.

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