Networks have been pretty bland and generic for the past 20 years. There has been innovation, but it has been more about playing to existing themes and less about the disruption that we have seen in servers, storage, and even datacenters. But new workloads and data patterns will challenge companies like Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, and Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise from established non-network players from other markets like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft as well as startups like Big Switch Networks and Cumulus Networks. In the past, networks and computing were very centralized, but changing workloads are pushing compute and network control out of the center of the network and out to the edges. It’s time for businesses to start thinking outside the box because the real action on the network might be outside of the datacenter, either at the edge or in the cloud.
For years, the central network control was in the heart of the datacenter, determining where all traffic could go, even traffic that was all the way out on the edge or between two servers sitting next to each other in a rack. Bandwidth was plentiful, so inefficient routing was accepted. But the new generation of applications is adding new demands that make this situation unsustainable. Instead of sending all of the traffic up through the core (creating lots of north-south traffic for servers that might be physically next to each other), now the goal is to handle these communications in the rack, or at least closer to the servers. This is where Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and edge computing have begun to come into favor, moving control for the center out to the out to the edge where it can be handled more efficiently.
Shifting control outward (Source: Moor Insights & Strategy)
Along with SDN, the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobility are fundamentally changing the network and compute functions; they are being pushed from the center of the network into a more distributed role, out along the edges of the network. Imagine the CEO of a startup who is involved in every decision, but as the business grows and becomes more complex they need to delegate, pushing the decision making authority out to managers further down the chain. The world of compute and networking are the same: as they get more complex, centralized control becomes a bottleneck.
SDN is changing both the role of networking and where control is located. As networking becomes more decentralized, control that used to happen at the core now needs to happen closer to the data and the servers—at the edge of the network. SDN facilitates this, pushing that compute function to the edge. SDN can be deployed on virtual machines (VMs) that sit on the servers (as in VMware NSX) or run on top-of-rack switches through an advanced network OS like Cumulus or Big Switch. Regardless of where the SDN workload is operating, because it is no longer in the core, that portion of the compute function has moved from the core to the edge.
The Internet of Things
IoT is bringing increased flows of data as well. Traditionally these flows start at an endpoint and travel all the way to the core before being acted upon. My colleague Gina Longoria has already written about how IoT will change the datacenter, but network changes will happen as well. Being able to act on the data closer to the edge will become more valuable. Andy Rhodes, Executive Director of IoT at Dell, pointed out that, “More and more of the data will be processed in real time at the edge of the network and then the valuable data extracted to the datacenter or cloud for further analysis. In essence, the gateway becomes the spam filter for IoT.” So as IoT grows, compute becomes more decentralized, and networks must adapt.
In the case of mobility, we’re actually seeing the changes in both directions. Today cell base stations already have a host of compute capabilities for processing data streams. Some carriers are trying centralize LTE processing into their datacenter or a cloud (essentially creating a beacon and a long backhaul). Others are expanding edge compute to reduce traffic over the backhaul, driving more efficiency and relieving congestion.
Clearly we’re seeing changing compute and network strategies to deal with these new workloads. Long ago companies like Akamai built a business by putting data closer to the edge, closer to the customer, with more compute at the edge. As we see new applications and usage models coming to life, both compute and the network will need to change to accommodate them, leading to a greater decentralization as companies try to eliminate traffic and bottlenecks from the old centralized designs.
While the world begins actively engaging on distributed network control, keep in mind that the ultimate endgame in a distributed network may actually become distributed processing. There is a strong argument for distributed network processing already, and vendors like Cisco Systems or Juniper Networks may find that the leaf-and-spine networks may start to cut into their core network sales. This will hardly be a light-switch transition, but once the move starts (typically at the edge) it will be very difficult to reverse. This may bring some of the disruptors like Big Switch, Cumulus, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and VMware into the game in a bigger way as both the compute and network control become more distributed and push functionality out to the edge—changing your network and your business.