All Aboard for App-Centric Networking

The enterprise is moving quickly onto the cloud and will soon lift even its network off the physical plane and into the realm of abstract, virtualized architecture.

The advantages of this set-up over today’s static infrastructure are legion, but one function that seems to get little notice is the ability to create application-aware or application-centric data environments. It’s almost as if most enterprise executives expect this level of functionality to simply ingrain itself into SDN and the cloud and make its operation and use cases self-evident.

The reality is quite different, of course. Not only will application-centric networking require careful planning and implementation, it will likely alter many of the processes that have defined enterprise activity for the past several decades at least. This puts the enterprise under the gun to make application-centric architecture both functional and worthwhile.

According to tech consultant Sam Greenblatt, an application-centric cloud involves the complete redefinition of compute, storage and network infrastructure. As the underpinnings of the data environment become more transparent, scalable and dynamic, the applications themselves must evolve along similar lines. A likely scenario is the development of composable applications that are created from various container-based services and other elements and targeted at highly specific functions. Naturally, this will require a sophisticated communications environment that can support legions of individually addressable containers.

This may seem daunting, says Cisco’s Stu Miniman and Shashi Kiran, but it is not as bad as it sounds. In fact, application-centric functionality will simplify both networking and application development in a number of key ways. For the network admin, there will no longer be a need to manually configure pathways and resources in support of static, monolithic apps, only to rework the whole thing with every new addition to the company’s software lineup. Meanwhile, app developers will not be hampered by rigid networking parameters but can simply define the networking they require and let the app take it from there.

While it may seem that Cisco has cornered this market with its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) platform, development is actually moving along from a variety of sources. Networking firm Plexxi, for instance, recently launched a series of switches designed to provide agile, scale-out infrastructure in part through the use of app-centric programmability. The Switch 2 Series offers single-tier networking by replacing multi-switch, leaf/spine architectures with an east-west capability more in tune with emerging collaboration and Big Data workflows. At the same time, it incorporates a mix of application integration and dynamic fabric management to change network topologies in real time to suit application requirements. Admins can oversee the environment through VMware’s vSphere cloud platform using the Plexxi Connect orchestration module.

Another player is Pluribus Networks, developer of the Netvisor SDN platform, which enables app-centric functionality across legacy Layer 2 and 3 networks. The company recently released an open version of the software for Dell’s ONIE line of switches to enable app-aware fabric provisioning, network flow programming and embedded analytics and visibility. The platform is unique in SDN circles because rather than separating control and data functions it tightly integrates the server and switch to enable real-time application and traffic control.

The notion of a fully automated, app-centric data architecture may bring visions of an army of applications carving up networking resources to their hearts’ content with little or no need for human oversight. This is only partially true, however. The reality is that policy and orchestration parameters will still be under IT’s control, but the actual provisioning of resources and the interplay between apps, services, data and workflows will largely be handled by software.

It may be an application-centric environment, but it still has to function for the betterment of users.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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