Virtualization is Driving Real Change in Data Center Networks

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As virtualization technology matures it is bringing some fundamental changes to data center networks. As we head deeper into 2012, expect to hear more and more about data center fabrics, which are switches that allow for a “flatter” network architecture than we’ve had in the past.

In a previous post, we covered Gartner’s prediction for data center fabrics:

Within four years, Gartner thinks bandwidth (as measured in I/O) per rack will increase 25 times – before considering storage and multimedia effects.

Enter fabric-based computing, which Gartner defines as “a set of compute, storage, memory and I/O components joined through a fabric interconnect and the software to configure and manage them.”

What that essentially means is larger switches with far more ports than their predecessors.

So far, Gartner’s prediction appears to be coming true, at least judging from the latest data center network equipment numbers from the market research firm Infonetics Research, for 3Q 2011:

“Wow is the only word that can accurately characterize the performance of the purpose-built data center Ethernet switching market at the end of the third quarter, with year-over-year gains of over 800%. That really tells the story of the data center network equipment sector: we are on the path to convergence in earnest,” notes Sam Barnett, directing analyst for data center and cloud at Infonetics Research.

Infonetics defines purpose-built data center Ethernet switches as standalone Ethernet switches designed specifically for data center environments. Attributes include low latency, lossless Ethernet fabric, support for converged enhanced Ethernet (CEE), and line rate performance.

Such switches are crucial to keep up with the demands that virtualization is placing on data center infrastructure. As companies continue to virtualize physical servers, they find more traffic remains within the data center, traveling between virtual machines on the same or different servers. What’s more, as more companies begin to virtualize storage infrastructure, still more traffic will remain in the data center. Gartner is predicting that by 2014 companies should expect more than 80% of data center traffic will be server-to-server.

All that traffic needs to be moved around quickly to ensure good end user response time, which is where data center switches come in. Fabric switches, especially, have far more ports than their predecessors, and support the kind of lossless, line-speed performance Infonetics notes – meaning companies can flatten their data center networks. No more do you need multiple tiers of switches feeding into one another; with fabric switches, any port can talk to any other directly.

Companies are apparently getting the message. While the growth in purpose-built Ethernet switches is nothing short of astounding, the rest of the data center equipment market is seeing health growth as well. As Infonetics reports:

  • Global revenue for data center network equipment is up 12% sequentially in 3Q11, with all segments posting growth, including general purpose, purpose-built and blade data center Ethernet switches, application delivery controllers (ADCs) and WAN optimization appliances
  • The data center network equipment market is also up 12% year-over-year (from 3Q10)

That kind of growth, especially amid the economic malaise that’s been lingering for years, tells me that real change is underway in data center networks.

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