Extending The Best Practices From The Data Center To The Campus

Last week Vendor X was briefing me on a set of new switches. The projector started rolling with a nice webconference slide deck and a voiceover highlighting customer requirements. It wasn’t long before I felt like Phil Connors (Bill Murray) from the movie Groundhog Day, listening to a radio DJ ask listeners if Punxsutawney Phil was going to see his shadow. This déjà vu moment wasn’t another data center networking briefing but, surprisingly, one about network campus switches.

The past five years have been an era of contraction. Businesses put cost-cutting on the top of their lists and virtualization and consolidation were the panacea for efficiency gains, becoming the shiny ball vendors used to lure customers into buying new solutions. As a result, every networking vendor has been rolling out solutions to address virtual machine (VM) mobility and storage convergence. However, priorities are changing: Revenue growth has just outranked cost-cutting in a Forrester survey of IT executives. I&O teams are altering their focus from where the VMs connect to the other edge where users hook in.

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Détente In The Networking War Signals A New Area Of Choice For I&O

I almost fell out of my chair a week ago Friday when HP posted a link to an overview of the Cisco Fabric Extender for HP BladeSystem. If it hadn’t been for tweets by Cisco, HP’s 180-degree reversal would have gone unnoticed in a time when mudslinging has become the networking industry’s de facto message, nowhere more apparent than in Cisco’s live video by Rob Lloyd, “Debunking the Myth of the ‘Good Enough’ Network,” and HP’s two-year shock-and-awe campaign against Cisco and its architecture with such posts as:

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Brocade Offers I&O An Opportunity To Control Costs With Their Subscription Program

Brocade isn’t the loudest networking vendor on the block, but more than two weeks ago it released a subscription switching service that should have sent a shockwave through the industry. With Brocade Network Subscription,customers pay for their network infrastructure on a monthly basis.  Sadly, the new service was not some new xfabric or new-fangled technology, the industry was quick to dismiss the news as anything more than another cloud announcement, and so Brocade’s subscription program registered only a murmur. What was missed was that the service helps to solidify I&O as a business unit on the same level as manufacturing, services, energy, and other businesses.

I’ve written extensively about how networking solutions need to support two business realities: 1) Enterprises are embedding themselves in their customers’ lives, and 2) businesses are forming symbiotic relationships with their vendors. In regard to the latter, businesses want to ensure that their vendor is creating products and solutions that are in the best interest of that company, and so there is an expectation that their partners will carry some of the financial risk and burden, ensuring that they will stay committed. On the vendor side and with respect to embedding themselves, the reasoning is twofold. First, Wall Street rewards recurring revenue streams, and this is more likely if the vendor can create something the customers can only get from that particular source. Second, vendors know it costs ten times as much to find new customers and would prefer to have a customer keep coming back to keep their operating costs as low as possible.

As a result, there has been a shift to a subscription service model. Take for example three distinct markets that support this strategy:

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Prediction: HP Cuts Loose Their Networking Hardware And Transforms Into A True Networking Alternative

HP’s startling announcement, two weeks ago, to discontinue Touchpad and all webOS-based products, purchase Autonomy Corporation, and split off its PC divisions, caught the market off-guard. Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Leo Apotheker feels the company could be the next Polaroid in the consumer products and mobile device war — a business that requires companies to be “much faster than a conglomerate can move in most circumstances.” The reality is this new strategic direction should not have surprised anyone who has read Leo’s résumé; it was the board’s intention to hire a strategic thinker who could evolve the company into a software and services organization by leveraging HP high-margin assets coupled with a few acquisitions. HP has one of the strongest orchestration software portfolios in the industry, which encapsulates everything from enhancing user experience through its APM solution all the way down to controlling Layer 2 through the Intelligent Management Center (IMC). With strategy toward creating and servicing cloud infrastructures, HP should examine what it has and figure out if its current networking portfolio differentiates the company, changes the way networking is done, and aligns HP’s networking division to HP’s strategic goals.

Three things I&O teams should think about when it comes to HP:

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A Reflection Of What I Learned At Cisco Live: Growing Up Isn't Easy

Even though CiscoLive was a month ago, I’m getting a lot of inquiry calls from clients asking me what I thought and what does Cisco’s megalaunch mean to them. I feel Cisco’s emerging out of their teenage years of taking things for granted and is getting down to business. But is it too late? I don’t think so, but Cisco has a lot of work ahead of them to win the hearts and minds of infrastructure and operations personnel. On some strong indicators that positive change is in action, I&O managers can hang their hats on Cisco in three areas:

  • Vision. If there is one attribute that customers can bank on, Cisco always delivers a vision and helps provide a road map for enterprises on what networking professionals should expect to see their networks support. In general, their visions provide a guide light on value beyond the sea of commodity issues: price, features, and speed.
  • Operations. Cisco’s drive toward consolidating its own operations and dissolving technology silos into services is in alignment with what enterprises need to do and where technology solutions must evolve. Cisco is blending teams into five areas: 1) core routing/switching innovation and optimization; 2) collaboration solutions ; 3) virtualization (including data center and cloud) technologies; 4) video as a primary communication medium and IT task; and 5) architecture — defining and delivering IT architecture for businesses and service providers. I&O managers can expect to see much more integrated and simplified solutions. This should help enterprises reduce the overhead associated with long deployment times and expensive services built on complicated solutions.
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SMARTnet Is Dead! Long Live The Lifetime Warranty!

Just kidding, Cisco’s SMARTnet isn’t dead, but I&O managers have a new warranty for networking hardware: free hardware replacement, bug fixes, and tech support. Basically, enterprises can expect to get a basic break-and-fix solution free from most vendors on edge and distribution switches or switch/routers. Hallelujah!

Everyone owes a big thank-you to HP. Over the past 10 years, while holding less than 5% of the market, HP’s ProCurve line forced its competitors’ hands, reset the industry’s warranty choices, and revolutionized what customers should expect from their networking vendors. By leveraging the lifetime warranty to separate themselves from the other seven dwarfs and Gigantor while trying to offset “you get what you pay for,” HP went to market offering next business day replacement on the hardware, phone and email support, along with software bug fixes and updates. They wanted customers to understand that only companies that delivered quality products could sustain this type of service model. HP extended the warranty out to some of the 3Com/H3C products -- after the acquisition -- too.

Within the past two years, most vendors have followed suit and offered their version of a lifetime warranty:

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What Do Spark Plugs And WLAN Solutions Have In Common?

It’s not the most daring and cutting-edge prediction to say 2011 will be Wi-Fi’s second coming. However, you might be caught off guard when I tell you to not worry about a vendor’s WLAN architecture. Your business needs will flush out the right one. Despite the initial hype seven years ago that Wi-Fi was going to be the new edge, it’s been the second choice for most users to connect with at work — but that will change. A tidal wave of wireless devices will be crashing through the enterprise front door very soon. Just look at the carriers scrambling to build out their infrastructure — there’s no shortage of stories about AT&T and their build-out of Wi-Fi in metropolitan areas. And users have fused their work and personal phones and are looking to seek coverage from carrier data plans.

The time to start was yesterday, and you have a ton of work to do. Your edge will be servicing:

  • Employees with corporate netbooks and their own smartphones and/or tablets who watch training videos on YouTube from companies like VMware.
  • Devices like torque tools, temperature sensors in exothermic chambers, ambient light sensors, and a myriad other devices.
  • Contractors with their own laptops, netbooks, tablets, and/or smartphones who need access to specific company applications.
  • Guests like account executives entering customer information into their CRM programs.
  • All the things being developed at venture capital backed incubators.
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Juniper’s QFabric: The Dark Horse In The Datacenter Fabric Race?

It’s been a few years since I was a disciple and evangelized for HP ProCurve’s Adaptive EDGE Architecture(AEA). Plain and simple, before the 3Com acquisition, it was HP ProCurve’s networking vision: the architecture philosophy created by John McHugh(once HP ProCurve’s VP/GM, currently the CMO of Brocade), Brice Clark (HP ProCurve Director of Strategy), and Paul Congdon (CTO of HP Networking) during a late-night brainstorming session. The trio conceived that network intelligence was going to move from the traditional enterprise core to the edge and be controlled by centralized policies. Policies based on company strategy and values would come from a policy manager and would be connected by high speed and resilient interconnect much like a carrier backbone (see Figure 1). As soon as users connected to the network, the edge would control them and deliver a customized set of advanced applications and services based on user identity, device, operating system, business needs, location, time, and business policies. This architecture would allow Infrastructure and Operation professionals to create an automated and dynamic platform to address the agility needed by businesses to remain relevant and competitive.

As the HP white paper introducing the EDGE said, “Ultimately, the ProCurve EDGE Architecture will enable highly available meshed networks, a grid of functionally uniform switching devices, to scale out to virtually unlimited dimensions and performance thanks to the distributed decision making of control to the edge.” Sadly, after John McHugh’s departure, HP buried the strategy in lieu of their converged infrastracture slogan: Change.

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Don’t Underestimate The Value Of Information, Documentation, And Expertise!

With all the articles written about IPv4 addresses running out, Forrester’s phone lines are lit up like a Christmas tree. Clients are asking what they should do, who they should engage, and when they should start embracing IPv6. Like the old adage “It takes a village to raise a child,” Forrester is only one component; therefore, I started to compile a list of vendors and tactical documentation links that would help customers transition to IPv6. As I combed through multiple sites, the knowledge and documentation chasm between vendors became apparent. If the vendor doesn’t understand your business goals or have the knowledge to solve your business issues, are they a good partner? Are acquisition and warranty costs the only or largest considerations to making a change to a new vendor? I would say no.

Support documentation and availability to knowledge is especially critical in networking design, deployment, maintenance, and upgrades. Some pundits have relegated networking to a commodity play, but networking is more than plumbing. It’s the fabric that supports a dynamic business connecting users to services that are relevant to the moment, are aggregated at the point of use, and originate from multiple locations. The complexity has evolved from designing in a few links to tens of hundreds of relationships (security, acceleration, prioritization, etc.) along the flow of apps and data through a network. Virtualization, convergence, consolidation, and the evolving data center networks are prime examples of today’s network complexity. In response to this complexity, architects and practitioners turn to books, training materials, blogs, and repositories so that they can:

  • Set up an infrastructure more quickly or with a minimal number of issues, since there is a design guide or blueprint.
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Networks Are About The Users, Not The Apps!

Virtualization and cloud talk just woke the sleeping giant, networking. For too long, we were so isolated in our L2-L4 world and soundly sleeping as VMs were created and a distant cousin was born, vSwitches. Sure, we can do a little of this and little of that in this virtual world, but the reality is everything is very manually driven and a one-off process. For example, vendors talk about moving policies from one port to another when a VM moves, but they don’t discuss policies moving around automatically on links from edge switches to the distribution switches. Even management tools are scrambling to solve issues within the data center. In this game of catch, I’m hearing people banter the word “app” around. Server personnel to networking administrators are trying to relate to an app. Network management tools, traffic sensors, switches, wan optimization are being developed to measure, monitor, or report on the performance of apps in some form or another.

Why is “app” the common language? Why are networks relating to “apps”? With everything coming down the pike, we are designing for yesterday instead of tomorrow. Infrastructure and operations professionals will have deal with:

  • Web 2.0tools. Traditional apps can alienate users when language and customs aren’t designed into the enterprise apps, yet no one app can deal with sheer magnitude of languages. Web 2.0 technologies — such as social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video-sharing sites, hosted services, web applications, mashups, and folksonomies — connect people with each other globally to collaborate and share information, but in a way that is easily customized and localized. For example, mashups allow apps to be easily created in any language and data sourced from a variety of locations.
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