New Network Platforms Prime the SDN Pump

It’s been a heady couple of weeks in networking circles. Many of the top vendors have begun to coalesce their product portfolios around definitive network architectures designed to propel the enterprise into the software-defined, cloud-ready 21st Century.

But whose vision has the most legs? Even more importantly, who will make the strongest partner in what is likely to be a complex transformation from disparate legacy architectures to a cohesive, dynamic network infrastructure?

First, the details. Cisco took the wraps off its yearlong Insieme project, which will deliver the Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI). The platform will guide the company’s hardware and software development efforts for years to come, combining such systems as the Nexus 9000 switch family and a host of new ACI tools like the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), as well as a new ACI-friendly version of the NX-OS operating system. Ultimately, ACI aims to allow applications to establish their ideal networking environment using a wealth of pooled resources residing on physical, virtual and cloud infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Arista Networks is offering streamlined infrastructure and faster throughput for lower-cost networking, improved application performance and massive scale-out capability. The company’s new 7000X Series will help the enterprise consolidate Layer 2 and Layer 3 infrastructure into a single tier, which Arista calls a “Spline” network (leaf + spine = spline, get it?). The concept promises to cut capex nearly in half. Arista clearly has Cisco in its sights, arguing that the 7000X is faster, more scalable and suitable to more diverse data environments than the Catalyst 6500.

And late last month, Juniper announced its new MetaFabric solution. MetaFabric utilizes Juniper’s existing QFabric solution to create a new multi-data center environment, which the company describes as a “fabric of fabrics.” Like Cisco, Juniper is bringing a wealth of existing products to the MetaFabric strategy, including the new QFX5100 rack switch that features the latest processors from Broadcom and Intel to drive multiple abstract switching layers for highly dense network environments. The platform also makes use of Juniper’s Virtual Chassis Fabric, which can bridge discrete switches using an integrated logical chassis, providing a broad range of management and configuration options.

And over at Brocade, open networking – truly open networking – seems to be the order of the day. The company has devised a new management framework, the Dynamic Network Resource Management (DNRM) system, that seeks to override vendor-specific distributions of the OpenStack protocol. OpenStack’s current spec, Neutron, forces enterprises to utilize a single vendor’s API in order to provide broad interoperability across virtual and cloud network infrastructure. With DNRM between the OpenStack layer and underlying hardware, enterprises will be able to utilize network devices from multiple vendors, which should go a long way toward integrating OpenStack into legacy network environments. Brocade hopes the OpenStack community will integrate DNRM into the next release, Icehouse, early next year, although this doesn’t look like a done deal just yet.

For much of its history, enterprise networking has evolved in piecemeal fashion. Enterprises added resources on a limited basis, usually in response to immediate needs rather than in pursuit of a grand vision of end-to-end functionality.

In the SDN era, however, the network must become one with the server and storage sides of the house, which means the underlying architecture must be configured as a whole so that the specific needs of users and applications can be deployed quickly and easily in software.

The ultimate decision regarding SDN, network fabrics and overlay technologies will depend largely on legacy infrastructure and expected future network requirements. But like building a house, the most crucial step is the foundation. If that isn’t done right, nothing else is likely to go as planned.

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