Converged infrastructure: a networking panacea or just another nice idea?

It's a real-time, data-heavy, multimedia world. Legacy networks with their siloed environments are simply not designed to deliver today's enterprise demands, which are focused more and more on delivering applications that support business processes.

Converged networks and automated management functions promise the high quality experience businesses crave with better performance and simpler network administration, but not all solutions out there are 'equal'.

Business necessity needs to be the driving force behind the implementation of enterprise networks, but delivering enterprise grade applications to a mobilised workforce requires a network that understands devices as well as applications. Why? Because the contextual understanding of conversations between devices and applications makes it possible for the network to optimise the user experience and network performance.

>See also: Converge and conquer: The growing force of converged infrastructure

The positive side of this for businesses is that converged networking won't necessarily need a rip-and-replace approach – the transition can be gradual. Data centres can already provide a lot of network automation to cope with application changes through virtualisation. The question is: how we organisations bring together the infrastructure pieces that may be at different levels of capability?

Her are four key things that need to be addressed when planning a move to a converged network.

1. Why it's not enough just to overlay

Not all solutions on the market are converged at the hardware level and instead opt for a software overlay to define storage, network and compute functions.

Overlay networking on top of a traditional infrastructure is a way of tying together disparate components of a network that have different levels of capability. With this approach it is possible to deliver bits of a converged service and has the advantage of being a quick and easy way to introduce some of the benefits of converged infrastructure.

But while this may meet provisioning requirements, it will not necessarily solve the performance issues – the overlay will only ever be as good as the underlying infrastructure, and if the infrastructure is not good enough, performance will be a growing issue.

2. Avoid the Catch 22

The difficulty with traditional networks lies in their limited awareness of the applications that are generating traffic and, conversely, the new virtual application control systems are unaware of the conditions prevailing within the network.

Application fluent networks (AFNs) avoid the Catch 22 situation. With an AFN, enterprises can enjoy a network that understands devices as well as applications. Contextual understanding of conversations between devices and applications makes it possible for the network to optimise the user experience and network performance.

An AFN can also adjust and optimise an entire corporate IT infrastructure in order to support real-time and data-rich applications. This will become increasingly important to businesses of any size, in order to deliver mission-critical applications securely to employees, no matter where they are.

>See also: The 3 myths of converged infrastructure

So while SDN is bridging the gap between the network world and the virtualised compute world by defining a framework that uses standardised interfaces between applications and networks, AFN technology provides a rich policy infrastructure that enables everyone to work autonomously or in a coordinated fashion.

3. Will you be a victim of vendor lock-in?

There has been much debate about the value of software-defined networks (SDNs), but in reality this is still in its infancy and most business environments will not see an end-to-end solution but a hybrid approach with traditional infrastructure and versions of SDN working alongside each other.

One of the fundamentals of true SDN is that it should be vendor agnostic, allowing for control of the network through SDN controllers, rather than through separate vendor silos that require administrating individually using proprietary protocols. SDN promises to create the ability for customisation and programmability that can deliver the functions, applications and services that are unique to each organisation.

Because of this it is vital to use hardware from vendors that use standards based technology and avoid the classic vendor lock-in. Being restricted to proprietary technology from one vendor, or a limited handful of select third party partners, limits the customisations that can be made and the levels of programmability that can be achieved, and hinders the flexibility that SDN is designed to provide.

This is why open protocols such as OpenFlow – enabling SDN through the management of network hardware from multiple vendors – or OpenStack's software tools for building cloud computing platforms are so important, as they provide the freedom to build and customise networks as businesses see fit.

4. Build a network that is fit for purpose

It's obvious to most that IT networks need to change if they have any hope of keeping up with the developments in devices and applications that are already a common part of the workplace. Yes, converged infrastructures with dynamic, automated management capabilities can provide the answer, but remember: not all solutions are made equal.

A network is more than just a data centre. It goes from the core all the way to the end user, wherever they are. The user experience must feature highly in the minds of providers and solution architects.

So converged networks need to offer more than simply providing automated configuration of network elements – they need to focus on the entire user experience. A holistic view needs to take into account the access infrastructure from data centre to WLAN, LAN and cabling to Wi-Fi infrastructure in office locations.

The question to be asked here is will the converged network have the programmability capabilities for end to end delivery of applications from data centre to user to device – and with the right priorities for a corporate environment?

By auditing current network capabilities and considering these four points, businesses will be in a much better position to take the first steps towards a modern IT network capable of meeting tomorrow's demands.


Sourced from Manish Sablok, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise

Avatar photo

Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...