Interop Vegas, Land of the Inexpensive and Powerful

I’m here in Las Vegas for the annual Interop show for IT professionals, and I’m finding it to be far livelier — and better attended — than I had expected it would be. In fact, I may need to rethink my belief that Web 2.0 has killed the networking engineer, as hordes of my compatriots are here, engaging in lively hallway discussions and even attending an Unconference.

While the activity here at Interop may show that IT is still a thriving business, there’s one trend that everyone I’ve spoken with so far has been observing: Inexpensive and powerful hardware is transforming IT networking infrastructure in ways we never would have conceived, even a few short years ago.

Commodity computing is dominating the show floor, with Intel processors not just in the server and desktop, but outside of it, in places including appliances serving as routers, load balancers, storage area network controllers, firewalls, application delivery controllers and so forth.

This makes intuitive sense if you realize that as a vendor you can easily find inexpensive hardware that can route multiple full-duplex Gigabit Ethernets per second, have memory that can hold a routing table twice the size of the entire Internet, implement firewall rules for every host in a typical organization — and not tax the Intel CPU with more than 10 percent load. If networking appliances are using something other than Intel processors, it’s often merchant silicon, from companies such as Broadcom, Cavium, Marvell and Nvidia.

As far as I can tell, only the highest-end networking appliances that serve multiple, 10-Gigabit Ethernet speeds are using custom silicon from specialized vendors. The market size for these highest-end appliances in the enterprise IT environment appears to be fairly small, even if the most optimistic bandwidth predictions come true.

With inexpensive and powerful networking hardware dominating the IT landscape, we may be ready for a shift in networking infrastructure. As an industry, we’ve been taught for over a decade about the three-tiered network design — access, distribution, core — but it strikes me that, with the commodity compute resources available today, this may need to be reconsidered. Networking engineers are already struggling to conform some of today’s modern technologies, like server and application virtualization, onto existing infrastructure design. Virtualized routers and firewalls are either in your network today or are just around the corner. Given the hardware that’s currently available to the networking industry, do we need a new network design to handle these new technologies? Dare I suggest that, with the processing power available today, some older networking protocols (IEEE802.5 with priorities or ATM with any-to-any direct communication) may be more relevant today?

If you know of a company here at Interop that is leveraging commodity compute to help transform network infrastructure, please let me know — I would be very anxious to meet with them.

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