Is Networking Gear the Last Stand Against Commoditization in the Data Center?

datacenterBrocade’s hanging of a “for sale” sign shines the spotlight on the one area of cloud and enterprise expansion that up until now has been largely overlooked: the network. Pick your model — cloud or enterprise — and it’s clear that while the list of server vendors is long, the single-source networking choices are few and far between. And as both cloud and enterprise markets move to commodity architectures that stress scale-out server approaches using IP and Ethernet networking, the importance of robust networking infrastructure becomes even greater. In the face of this transformation, will networking remain the last piece of the data center puzzle in which brand names still matter?

Be it in the form of the rapidly expanding web-scale application approach, or the rapidly consolidating virtualized machine approach, the rise of the homogeneous infrastructure is upon us. Looking at deployments, if Google is a leading indicator of rapidly expanding web-scale applications, data centers will use the simplest server components, including internal disk drives, connected via IP and Ethernet. And when virtualized machines thoroughly permeate enterprise data centers, a similar standard server node with requisite hypervisor(s) will be the building block for large-scale deployments.

Both models rely on an increasingly capable network, and both are causing a ruckus among industry giants. In the race to capture a bigger slice of data center sales, Cisco, HP, IBM and Dell are blurring traditional demarcation lines between servers, networking and storage. So consider the server game well saturated and widely dispersed. And one in which the brand of server equipment is becoming increasingly less important.

Of course, if you need to build a complete networking infrastructure for all these servers, including everything from dense core switching to rack-level aggregation, Cisco emerges as the primary supplier, with everyone else far, far behind. Brocade might be next, thanks to its acquisition of Foundry Networks. And there are a crop of newcomers like Arista Networks, as well as those who got in on the ground floor with 10-Gigabit Ethernet, like Force10. But compared to Cisco, HP and IBM, these emerging networking vendors need a bit more time to get up to scale.

There are pros and cons to this grand data center consolidation. The race, however, is on.

But the bigger implication for infrastructure vendors is how to maintain the technology control points. For years, vendors fought over who could claim to have the best server or storage array. Now, with the migration to cloud computing and enterprise deployments, the focus has changed from the benefits of any individual piece of hardware to how well one can connect hundreds to thousands of servers. Rather than a custom collection of heterogeneous infrastructure components, the software or the virtual machines determine how the hardware resources get presented to applications. The Internet giants adopted this model long ago. Now it appears the traditional data center players are waking up to it as well, and will invest in the final, critical piece of data center infrastructure — the network.

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