Flatline! Can slow data centre network transformation drive your business six feet under?
Every second of every day, data centres around the world store and deliver the most precious commodity of the knowledge-based economy: information. They’re the nerve centres, the brains, of modern organisations. Downtime implies business inactivity, the equivalent of a coma, and it’s potentially just as devastating. On the upside, the faster, more agile, and more responsive data centres are these days, the more aware, intelligent, and competitive the business becomes.
According to Gary Middleton, Business Development Manager for Networking at Dimension Data, growing your data centre to achieve these increasingly demanding performance goals isn’t as simple as buying bigger and better machines with every refresh cycle. It requires a holistic approach that evolves the data centre network at the same pace as everything else. Without this more delicate, well-planned ‘brain surgery’ to the network, your data centre, and by extension your business itself, may flatline.
New servers, more capacity
‘It’s not surprising that data centre infrastructures are under tremendous pressure these days,’ says Middleton, ‘that is, considering the many changes we’ve seen in both technology and business itself over the last decade. The trend towards more consolidated data centres continues apace, because organisations want to save costs and reduce their carbon footprint. Larger data centres must deliver more capacity at greater speed, but consume less power – all of which requires increasingly sophisticated servers.
‘New servers are indeed getting far more powerful and efficient in terms of their microprocessors and memory,’ adds Middleton. ‘Yet, organisations tend to forget about the underlying network that brings them together. A well-known international financial services provider, for example, recently deployed much more powerful servers within its data centre. It immediately needed to upgrade its network capacity from being able to handle speeds of only one-gigabyte per second, to 10-gigabytes per second, just to cope with the amount of traffic the new servers were creating. A server refresh is often the impetus for organisations to start thinking about evolving their data centre networks. But there’s more to it than simply considering hardware and capacity requirements.’
Fragmented applications, more traffic
Along with more sophisticated servers, the applications that run within the data centre have also changed. ‘Gone are the days when a single server delivered an application,’ explains Middleton. ‘Now we often see three-tier applications. One server would handle the interface to the user but, in the back-end, it’s connected to a database server and a Web server to deliver what the user needs. Different parts of the application would do different things: one part may be connecting with other applications to gather more data, another may be responsible for complex calculations. All of these different parts create an active ‘meshwork’ of functions behind the scenes. While the user experiences a unified view, information is passed back and forth between various physical and virtual machines. This results in large quantities of what we call “east-west traffic” in data centre networks. The functional and structural evolution of applications has therefore created the need for new and more flexible architectures.’
Adding to the demands that modern data centre infrastructures need to cope with is the move towards enterprise mobility and cloud computing. Says Middleton: ‘Modern users are connecting to their applications from wherever they are in the world, and expect the same experience no matter where they are. At the same time, organisations want the flexibility, scalability, and pay-per-use benefits offered by cloud computing – but integrated seamlessly into their legacy infrastructures. We make so many demands of data centres today, that without an end-to-end review and transformation of their architectures, they run the risk of flatlining under the pressure.’
Network as the platform
‘The network is the platform for an organisation’s entire ICT infrastructure,’ asserts Middleton. ‘This holds true also within the data centre. Modern data centres and modern applications can’t function optimally without modern data centre networks. Without such a strong foundation to build on, the whole structure becomes weak. What’s required is a more holistic view of the foundational elements of which the data centre network consists:
- Hardware – ‘It remains crucial to have the right hardware in place,’ says Middleton, ‘especially now that specialist data centre network equipment is emerging. A general-purpose network switch won’t work in a data centre environment. Data centre switches offer a set of special features targeted at this environment. Front-back airflow is one example, designed so that the device fits properly into a rack. Another is the ability to run storage traffic, which enables converged networks inside the data centre.’
- Software-defined technology – ‘In addition to specialist hardware, we’ve recently seen the emergence of software-defined architectures,’ says Middleton. ‘This is an important evolution in networks overall, but one that’s particularly useful within data centres. Software-defined data centre networks are highly automated, eliminate human intervention, and add to the data centre’s overall programmability, agility, and flexibility.’
- Network virtualisation – ‘Virtualisation is also gaining more ground,’ says Middleton. ‘Just as certain computing functions can now be abstracted and run by virtual machines, specialist network functions are now also run in virtualised software environments. This adds a great degree of control to network management.’
‘Working together, these elements form the building blocks of the modern-day data centre network. In addition, further technical aspects such as application acceleration and network services may also come into play to ensure that users accessing data within the data centre have a fast, reliable, and quality experience. It’s necessary to bring all of these factors together in the right combination, in order to deliver what the organisation expects from its data centre,’ says Middleton. ‘The question is: how do you determine the combination that’s right for your business?’
Start with the end in mind
‘Firstly, you need to have a clear view of what it is you want to achieve with your infrastructure,’ advises Middleton. ‘Don’t think about hardware only. Consider all the ingredients that go into building a modern-day data centre network and the various benefits and pitfalls presented by each in delivering what you need. In other words, have clearly identified technical and business objectives in mind. These will help you envision a future-state architecture that will serve your business in the best way possible. Migrating towards that end state can start only once you’ve created a step-by-step roadmap that will lead you there.
‘Data centre network modernisation done haphazardly will hold your organisation back from achieving the business outcomes it needs. But it doesn’t mean rebuilding your entire infrastructure all at once. It implies appropriately paced transformation over time, which also implies evolving your data centre network at the same time. Start small. Pick a specific area of your data centre or a non-critical application to evolve. Use it as a test environment and gradually build a strong business case for further evolution as you gain experience and confidence. The point is to have an end goal, an overall vision, in mind – if you don’t, speak to an expert that can give you comprehensive advice across your entire data centre estate, not just in one area, or about one particular vendor.
‘Today’s networks often become the bottlenecks holding back the creation of more agile, cost-effective, and automated infrastructures,’ says Middleton. ‘This is even more true for data centres. The complicated workloads, applications, and automation of these dynamic environments should be reflected in the data centre network itself. If this transformation lags behind, your organisation’s nerve centre may be at risk of a devastating seizure caused by overexertion.’