Software’s Hot, but Hardware’s Still Cool

Many within the networking space now surmise that as virtual or software-defined networking takes hold of enterprise infrastructure, hardware will diminish to mere interchangeable components of network architecture. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, since software is more flexible and fungible than hardware, but it isn’t going to happen. Switches, routers, and other devices aren’t going to become generic boxes quietly humming away, only to be pulled and discarded when they inevitably fail. On the contrary, even if most of the actual network functionality moves to software, crucial decisions will still remain regarding the kinds of devices to be deployed and how they will be used.

In switching, for example, Dell’Oro Group, a networking and telecommunications market research firm, sees a number of significant forces affecting the market, forces that will combine to produce a surge in deployment activity followed by a steady drop-off. On the upside, network consolidation and the increasing popularity of cloud services will drive a need in the data center for substantial network overhauls to improve throughput and flexibility. Meanwhile, the increased use of mobile devices will likely cause a run on wireless LAN (WLAN) technology, which may ultimately supplant traditional switching and routing as the preferred network technology.

But even if the trusty switch can count on a long development path ahead, the top switch vendors might face a struggle. When it comes to switching and network capacity, nobody tops large web-facing enterprises like Facebook and Google. These firms, however, increasingly deploy their own turnkey hardware platforms to connect their massive data environments. Facebook has gone so far as to release its switch architecture to the public under the company’s Open Compute Project, which recently announced plans to change the networking world as we know it. The Open Compute Project aims to provide an optimized, yet highly configurable, platform for high-speed, large-volume environments, something Facebook says it hasn’t found in off-the-shelf devices.

Nevertheless, development of state-of-the-art switching platforms continues unabated. In fact, the ever-increasing need for density and dynamic performance offers opportunities for small networking firms to break the stranglehold of top-tier vendors like Cisco and HP. Taiwan’s RubyTech, for example, is turning to advanced SoC designs by Vitesse Semiconductor for a new range of SMB/SME devices aimed at bringing carrier-class performance to the enterprise. The E-Stax-III platform, now part of RubyTech’s GS-2328X and GS-2352X Stackable Layer-2+ Managed Ethernet Switch, provides less than 10 ms failover, as well as scalability to 800 Ethernet ports and a single-point management system for improved control and configuration. Applications range from videoconferencing and collaboration to VoIP and cloud-based SaaS/PaaS services.

And while large data centers are likely to embrace SDN in short order, that in itself will drive demand for large switching platforms. Huawei just introduced a new core switch, the CE12816, that pushes through a whopping 64 Tbps across more than 1,500 10 GbE ports. The system supports large virtual and cloud environments (CE stands for CloudEngine) using the company’s Cluster Switch System (CSS) and Virtual System (VS) features to enable dynamic pooling of logical switches. It also supports TRILL-based Layer 2 networking on up to 500 nodes for rapid migration and flexible deployment of virtual machines.

Regardless of the type of switch or the manner in which the network uses it, one thing is certain: network technology across the board will have to accommodate data environments of a complexity that could not have been imagined a few short years ago. Most of the magic will happen in software, but it’s the hardware that will set the stage.

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