Enterprise Infrastructure: Changing from the Bottom Up

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s a comforting thought. Even relevant, as long as we’re talking about sweeping historical trends. When it comes to technology, though, lately the opposite holds true more often than not. The more things change, the more they change.

Look at the evidence. Converging evolutions and revolutions in virtualization, solid state storage, the cloud, SDN, and mobility appear poised to radically remake data environments as we know them and transform the data center itself into something completely different than what it was just a few years ago. And by “completely different,” I don’t just mean new systems and new architectures. I mean an entirely new entity, one no longer under the direct control of the enterprise.

Networking will feel this change more keenly than most other areas of the data center.

Flexibility more desirable than high throughput

For decades, speed ruled, first on the kilobit level, then the megabit, then the gigabit, and now on double- and even triple-digital Gbps. The need to push as much data from place to place in the shortest amount of time possible always trumped all other considerations. These days, high throughput remains desirable, but not as much so as flexibility—the ability to shuttle disparate data sets of differing sizes to as many places as possible, and then break down and reconfigure pathways and interconnections at a moment’s notice, according to ever-changing user requirements.

I recently interviewed Jason Nolet, vice president of Brocade’s Data Center, Switching and Routing unit, for Enterprise Networking Planet‘s sister publication, IT Business Edge. Nolet stated quite plainly that despite the rise of 40G and 100G Ethernet, “speeds and feeds are not really where the action is.” Simplification and automation have taken their place, because simplification and automation will not only reduce costs, but also enable network infrastructure to become as agile as virtual server environments. Wider pipes certainly help, but more due to how they support network fabric infrastructures than because of their high-speed capabilities.

Purpose-built networking gear sales rising while commodity hardware numbers fall

The latest market research already bears this out. According to Infonetics Research, worldwide sales of Ethernet gear, application delivery controllers, and even WAN optimization technology dropped 11 percent in the first quarter to $2.3 billion. Purpose-built networking equipment, on the other hand, saw a 30 percent gain. This suggests that while large cloud operators like Google and Amazon continue to augment their plants, traditional enterprises are pulling back with the expectation that more and more of their data will migrate off of owned-and-operated systems onto hosted infrastructure.

These days, then, large cloud operators represent the new frontier for networking equipment vendors’ volume shipments, but much of that business will focus on custom-designed hardware, rather than the commodity systems favored by the enterprise. As Dell’Oro Group’s Alan Weckel noted recently, the arrival of cloud computing will consolidate IT infrastructure into large regional behemoths that cater to customers around the world. This transition could happen in as little as three years. And the resulting super-massive facilities won’t be able to cost-effectively maintain standard enterprise infrastructure. Systems of the future must stress efficiency and ease of management as well as a wide variety of data handling capabilities.

Convergence and modularity for scalability and ease of management

These systems of the future demand convergence and modularity. Rather than build separate infrastructures for servers, storage, and networking and then cobble them together with layers of communications protocols, leading organizations need integrated computing modules that can be added and replaced in a building block style. Not only does this provide for easy scalability, but it is more amenable to the multitenant environments of the cloud. As ENP’s Sean Michael Kerner noted, the recent combination of  Extreme Networks, Lenovo and EMC is only the latest in a long list of converged system ventures, including HP’s AppSystem, Cisco’s UCS, and IBM’s PureSystems.

What we’re seeing today, then, is not merely the incremental change of advancing technology but a radical overthrow of the basic tenets of enterprise IT. And dramatic change means fortunes to be won and lost.

Before all is said and done, expect many of today’s technologies, business models, and even livelihoods to fade away as new ones rise in their place.

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