Broadband data centers are poised for change. Pressures to reduce costs, to improve availability, to increase scalability and to simplify configuration make a compelling case for moving to Ethernet fabrics in the data center.

Unlike traditional Ethernet networks that move traffic up and down tiers from access switches to the core (or north and south), Ethernet fabrics are flat, and they connect every point in the network to every other point. Traffic, therefore, can move east and west across the data center, which is critical for applications that share resources, including cloud computing and such latency-sensitive applications as video caching and gaming.

Operational Benefits

This flat architecture improves efficiency as virtual workloads can move to underused resources. “It eliminates islands of capital,” says Denise Shiffman, vice president/Product Marketing, Platform Systems Division at Juniper Networks. “It enables the seamless movement of virtual machines and applications without having to reconfigure and re-cable the switches.”

In addition, Ethernet fabrics are highly scaleable. Adds Shiffman, “When service providers deploy new cloud services, they don’t know what the uptake will be. They want to be able to deploy and scale up quickly.”

Installation also is simplified. “Traditional data center networks are not plug-and-play. Each switch has to be configured, and each link between switch and server has to be configured,” notes Daniel Williams, director/Product Marketing for Service Provider and Application Delivery Products at Brocade. “Fabrics are driven by plug-and-play. Switches self-discover one another and bring up links between one another.” Thus, if problems occur, fabrics also self heal, improving reliability.

In addition, the plug-and-play nature of Ethernet fabrics reduces training requirements and improves the productivity of data-center staff. Network engineers can manage the entire fabric as one logical switch, and they spend less time monitoring the network and managing changes, explains Kishore Inampudi, senior product marketing manager/Platform Systems Division at Juniper Networks.

Mini Data Centers

How might broadband service providers use an Ethernet fabric? Brocade’s Williams expects to see cable headends transformed into mini data centers. By putting data centers closer to end users, operators can offer higher-value services that benefit from low latency. He says, “Operators can extract a premium for these services. It makes customers more sticky, enables more service differentiation and reduces churn.”

Potential applications include cloud computing, transaction-based services, private data-center hosting, Web hosting, application hosting, high-performance computing, and collaboration between individuals and businesses. Video caching and content distribution also are well-suited to mini data centers. According to Williams, pushing video content closer to the end user improves latency and also cuts traffic on the backbone because operators can push content out once to the data center and then distribute it via the metro network to the subscriber.

Ethernet Fabrics Now Shipping

Both Brocade and Juniper Networks are shipping Ethernet fabric products. Customers of Brocade’s VDX data-center switches, which feature its VCS fabric technology, include Peak Colo, a cloud services provider, and Miniclip, an online gaming company. Bell Canada is deploying Juniper Networks’ QFabric solution to offer cloud services, as is CODONiS, which provides private data-center services for medical applications.

Sales of Ethernet switches are expected to grow significantly. Dell’Oro Group expects the Layer 2/Layer 3 Ethernet switch market to approach $28 billion in 2016, fueled primarily by sales of Ethernet switches optimized for large data-center deployments.

Jennifer Whalen

The Daily

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