Transform Data Centre Networking, Without the Small Talk

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If I asked you to play a round of word associations starting with ‘Intel’, I doubt many of you would come back with ‘networking’. Intel is known for a lot of other things, but would it surprise you to know that we’ve been in the networking space for more than 30 years, collaborating with key leaders in the industry? I’m talking computer networking here of course, not the sort that involves small talk in a conference centre bar over wine and blinis. We’ve been part of the network journey from the early Ethernet days, through wireless connectivity, datacentre fabric and on to silicon photonics. And during this time we’ve shipped over 1 billion Ethernet ports.

As with many aspects of the move to the software-defined infrastructure, networking is changing – or if it’s not already, it needs to. We’ve spoken in this blog series about the datacentre being traditionally hardware-defined, and this is especially the case with networking. Today, most networks consist of a suite of fixed-function devices – routers, switches, firewalls and the like. This means that the control plane and the data plane are combined with the physical device, making network (re)configuration and management time-consuming, inflexible and complex. As a result, a datacentre that’s otherwise fully equipped with the latest software-defined goodies could still be costly and lumbering. Did you know, for example, that even in today’s leading technology companies, networking managers have weekly meetings to discuss what changes need to be made to the network (due to the global impact even small changes can have), which can then take further weeks to implement? Ideally, these changes should be made within hours or even minutes.

So we at Intel (and many of our peers and customers) are looking at how we can take the software-defined approach we’ve used with compute and apply it to the network as well. How, essentially, do we create a virtualised pool of network resources that runs on industry-standard hardware and that we can manage using our friend, the orchestration layer? We need to separate the control plane from the data plane.

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Building virtual foundations

The first step in this journey of network liberation is making sure the infrastructure is in place to support it. Historically, traditional industry-standard hardware wasn’t designed to deal with networking workloads, so Intel adopted a 4:1 workload consolidation strategy which uses best practices from the telco industry to optimise the processing core, memory, I/O scalability and performance of a system to meet network requirements. In practice, this means combining general-purpose hardware with specially designed software to effectively and reliably manage network workloads for application, control, packet and signal processing.

With this uber-foundation in place, we’re ready to implement our network resource pools, where you can run a previously fixed network function (like a firewall, router or load balancer) on a virtual machine (VM) – just the same as running a database engine on a VM. This is network function virtualisation, or NFV, and it enables you to rapidly stand up a new network function VM, enabling you to meet those hours-and-minutes timescales rather than days-and-weeks. It also effectively and reliably addresses OpEx and manual provisioning challenges associated with a fixed-function network environment in the same way that compute virtualisation did for your server farm. And the stronger your fabric, the faster it’ll work – this is what’s driving many data centre managers to consider upgrading from 10Gb Ethernet, through to 40Gb Ethernet and on to 100Gb Ethernet.

Managing what you’ve built

So, hooray! We now have a path to virtualising our network functions, so we can take the rest of the week off, right? Well, not quite. The next area I want to address is software-defined networking (SDN), which is about how you orchestrate and manage your shiny new virtual network resources at a data centre level. It’s often confused with NFV but they’re actually separate and complementary approaches.

Again, SDN is nothing new as a concept. Take storage for example – you used to buy a fixed storage appliance, which came with management tools built-in. However, now it’s common to break the management out of the fixed appliance and manage all the resources centrally and from one location. It’s the same with SDN, and you can think of it as “Network Orchestration” in the context of SDI.

With SDN, administrators get a number of benefits:

  • Agility. They can dynamically adjust network-wide traffic flow to meet changing needs agilely and in near real-time.
  • Central management. They can maintain a global view of the network, which appears to applications and policy engines as a single, logical switch.
  • Programmatic configuration. They can configure, manage, secure and optimise network resources quickly, via dynamic, automated SDN programs which they write themselves, making them tailored to the business.
  • Open standards and vendor neutral. They get simplified network design and operation because instructions are provided by SDN controllers instead of multiple, vendor-specific devices and protocols. This open standards point is key from an end user perspective as it enables centralised management.

Opening up

There’s still a way to go with NFV and SDN, but Intel is working across the networking industry to enable the transformation. We’re doing a lot of joint work in open source solutions and standards, such as OpenStack.org - unified computing management including networking, OpenDaylight.org - a platform for network programmability, and also the Cisco* Opflex Protocol – an extensible policy protocol. We’re also looking at how we proceed from here, and what needs to be done in order to build an open, programmable ecosystem.

Today I’ll leave you with this short interview with one of our cloud architects, talking about how Intel’s IT team has implemented software-defined, self-service networking. My next blog will be the last in this current series, and we’ll be looking at that other hot topic for all data centre managers – analytics. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how your business could use SDN to drive time, cost and labour out of the data centre.

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