A Cloudy New World of Networking

The cloud take-over of data center workloads seems nearly complete, which means networking is now the chief infrastructure burden for the enterprise.

Building and maintaining connectivity to and from the cloud, or multiple clouds for many organizations, is not the same as within the data center. Even the emergence of highly orchestrated, software-defined network architectures cannot gloss over all of the differences.

According to Cisco’s most recent Global Cloud Index, total cloud data center traffic is on pace to hit 19.5 ZB per year by 2021, more than triple the level as recently as 2016. This represents 95 percent of all data center traffic, leaving just 5 percent to traditional on-premises facilities. This trend is being driven by the rise of increasingly data-intensive consumer applications, such as streaming video and social networking, as well as many enterprise functions that are now consumed as services, including ERP and analytics. Also contributing is the rise of connected devices on the Internet of Things (IoT), which are expected to more than double by 2021 to 13.7 billion.

Clearly, the enterprise needs to transition its cloud networks to the same, or similar, software architectures that are taking hold internally. But the plethora of platforms targeting key areas of the local and wide area footprint makes this difficult. This is part of what VMware is trying to address with its new Virtual Cloud Network (VCN), which it bills as an end-to-end SDN solution for the data center, cloud, branch office and edge. VCN is not a new product but a more tightly integrated version of existing systems, namely VMware’s NSX SD-WAN, data center and cloud solutions. It also includes expanded support for the Microsoft Azure, as well as containerized cloud-native and bare-metal applications. As well, it features new network optimization tools for running distributed workloads over disparate resources.

It may be tempting to think that once the network goes virtual the entire world can be treated as one big data center. But as West Gate Networks’ Andrew Froelich points out, this is not the case, at least not yet. For one thing, the VPN tunnel currently used to access IaaS resources will not be enough as environments scale. More than likely, you’ll need to bypass the Internet through a dedicated private WAN link, which provides better performance but comes with a range of options that must be carefully weighed for each use case. Plus, security is a whole different ballgame in the cloud, with reliance on fixed firewalls giving way to software-based access and monitoring tools. And you can expect cloud networks to be highly automated from the get-go, requiring deep visibility into application and data workflows.

Effective cloud networking is more than just an architectural or infrastructure challenge. Jeff Loughridge, co-founder of network consulting firm Konekti Systems, says the rise of DevOps culture in the enterprise means that network admins and developers must work together closely in order to provide the continuous support that modern apps require. This means both sides need to have a common understanding of things like IP numbering, infrastructure-as-code and the basics of collaborative workflows. In this world, a mastery of the command line interface should be buttressed by knowledge of data transfer and serialization languages like JSON and YAML, as well as distributed version control platforms like Git.

In this age of digital transition, just about everything we knew about data infrastructure and processes is undergoing momentous change, so there is no reason why the network should be spared. Still, change just for the sake of changing is never a good strategy. Cloud networking is certainly the wave of the future, but the details as to exactly how it is to be designed and managed still depend very much on each enterprise’s unique needs.

Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering enterprise IT, telecommunications and other high-tech industries.

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