Juniper Redefines the Networking Core and Edge with Single-Tier QFabric

I have to admit, when I first heard that Juniper was looking to deliver a “single tier” for networking, I thought it was a case of marketing one-upmanship. Every networking vendor has been pitching its own version of how to flatten a network to gain greater efficiencies and support the different traffic patterns driven by virtualization. I wrote last year that there wasn’t much differentiation between the various high level messages of moving to a two-tier network. Juniper has announced the architecture of it’s Stratus Project – the first hardware component, the QFX3500 starts shipping this quarter and the full QFabric solution is expected to ship by Q3’11. Juniper’s deconstruction of a switch, which allows for greater scale, lower latency and most importantly an order of magnitude in the number of devices to be managed, is truly innovative (not a term I use lightly).

The Switch Becomes a Fabric

Juniper QFabric

The QFX3500 is a 1U switch with 48 ports of 1Gb/10Gb Ethernet (4 12 of these ports can also be used as FC – see this post for more details on the FCoE/storage networking impact) and 4 ports of 40Gb that can used support another 4 10Gb connections. At $34k list price, it’s a nice top-of-rack switch in a crowded edge switch market. Juniper defines its QFabric as a flat, resilient solution where everything is 1 hop away and it can scale without complexity. The QFX3500 is not so much of an edge switch, but when the 40Gb connections are attached to interconnect chassis (via optical cables), it is a blade of a large core switch. On paper, it may look like a two tier architecture, but Juniper says that it is more the equivalent of pulling a blade out of the chassis and replacing the copper backplane connection with an optical wire. The intelligence is in the edge and the interconnect chassis is optimized for speed (from one edge node, through the interconnect, to the other edge is 5 microseconds – the maximum distance is twice the OM4 cable length of 150m or 300m total which the speed of light can travel in about 1 microsecond). This solution can scale to 3k ports with 2 interconnect chassis or 6k with 4 and even at this scale, the fabric is managed as a single switch. While a number of vendors have technologies that allow 2 switches to be managed as a single device (Cisco’s vPC, Arista’s MLAG), Juniper is supporting up to 128 of the edge nodes as a single switch in the first release.

Fitting into the Ecosystem

One of the best things about the Juniper solution is that it’s not all-or-nothing. The QFX3500 can be purchased stand-alone and can connect to existing environments. Even as a customer builds out a Juniper fabric, the existing switching infrastructure can remain (here’s a good post on Juniper/Cisco multi-vendor networks). Prior to this new product generation, Juniper is #3 in 10Gb Ethernet revenue and has a broader OEM support than HP and Cisco since it does not compete in the server market. Thanks to its router legacy, most enterprise companies and service providers have a familiarity with Junos, which reduces the concern of learning a new management language. Juniper also has integrated a broad spectrum of network and data center management tools including Virtual Control for VMware vCenter. Of course, Cisco is still the 800-pound gorilla in the space and HP has networking as part of its stack attack, so while Juniper’s three years of development has yielded a differentiated offering, it will be a tough battle for market share.

The Bottom Line

It is often difficult for CIOs to overcome the inertia of existing infrastructure and organization to radically improve the cost structure of an environment. Juniper’s new single tier network shows the rare promise of changing the economics of a technology environment without having to start with a clean slate. IT organizations should take the deployment of 10Gb Ethernet and higher to reevaluate architectural designs and vendors. With its new single-tier architecture, Juniper should be on the short list of networking vendors to consider.

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