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Summary:

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 […]

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.

  1. Isn’t it interesting how XML boxes and appliances with custom silicon turned out to be such a bust! What a bunch of Rubes!

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  2. People have been slapping Linux/{Free,Open}BSD on x86 commodity boxes for years; only now has the software and corporate management matured enough to really give traditional vendors a run for their money. In the coming years, there’ll be no reason to pay the exorbitant prices for devices such as, say, Cisco’s 3600 line and below. Access and CPE devices are changing radically. Just wait until OpenBSD has a mature MPLS implementation…

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  3. If you’re looking for a company at Interop leveraging a commodity computer, you should check-out MetaGeek. They’ve build a powerful, USB-powered spectrum analyzer and a data-rich analysis tool… a combo that their competitors are selling at $3000+. But because MetaGeek’s tool leverages the computing power of the end-user’s desktop or laptop, they’re selling their tool in the $300 range.

    Anyway… think they might just fit the bill.

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  4. Gaaaah! not ATM again…seriously though, we should see commodity computing + open source routing stacks begin to be practical around 1Gbps line rates. For wirespeed services at 10Gbps and beyond, non-commodity code + merchant/proprietary silicon is required for 3-5 years and then 10G should commoditize as well. server virtualization will require new network dogmata i believe – in the data center and in the ‘clouds’.

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  5. @Alan – you’re right, for a vast majority of the market you don’t need custom silicon…despite the conventional wisdom of the past.

    @click – I’d say that everything from the Cisco 7200 product line and lower is open for disruption!

    @Silus – thanks, I’ll check them out.

    @rohit – no, not ATM again if we can help it! I’m a bit biased, but I completely agree on the commodity compute + open source networking. Check out http://www.vyatta.com ;)

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  6. Silus

    I didn’ know that there was T&M at interop! I recently considered buying used Fireberd T1-T3 analyzer, and saw that there are PC based usb dongles with breakout hubs that do more than a Fireberd could ever hope to for about 5k less!

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  7. You should check out Mellanox, which is using its 20- and 40Gbps InfiniBand silicon to offer an end-to-end data center interconnect infrastructure that accommodates Ethernet, and Fibre Channel and costs less than 10-gigabit Ethernet alone. Mellanox’s Virtual Protocol Interconnect strategy will allow any storage, server, or IPC device to connect to a very high speed, low-latency network at equal or lower cost and with far lower costs for space, power, and management.

    http://www.mellanox.com
    Interop booth # Booth #2307

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  8. @Allan: Do check them out. D’love to know what you think.

    @Alan: I don’t know how many other T&M firms are there, but MetaGeek is. Great little firm. I think they’re poised for good things, considering how the market has changed after recent acquisitions.

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  9. I just read the older article on network engineers. All I can say is that I’ve been a “network engineer” for 20+ years and it’s never been more desperately needed. There are fewer of us with strong experience than ever before. It’s impossible to recruit people, and salaries remain strong and rising. So a simple economic analysis says that plumbers are still required. And just like plumbing a lot of CTO’s don’t want to hear about it, but it needs to be done. That said, it’s the CTO’s that don’t want to hear about it that loose. Like good household plumbing it’s not exactly what you show the visitors when it’s working. But rest assured ALL OF YOUR VISITORS WILL KNOW when it isn’t working. And many will NOT return.

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  10. @Michael – I’ve seen Mellanox before. Very interesting technology – hope it survives the coming 10GigE onslaught….

    @Silus – I checked them out – definitely worth a look if you’re in the T&M space.

    @Victor – amen. Cisco talks about not wanting to be the plumber of the Internet and I get that from a marketing and stock performance perspective. Yet, look at what products dominate their sales (routers and switches). Plumbers make good money :)

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