Network infrastructure is the set of systems that enables communication between compute and storage , applications and/or users. Network infrastructure can include connectivity to the public Internet, which is available to any system that implements modern networking protocols (like TCP/IP and HTTP(S) ).
Network infrastructure typically includes hardware, such as physical network switches and routers that control traffic as it moves into and out of a data center, as well as network software resources , such as virtualized switches, routers, firewalls and load balancers that manage traffic flowing to and from applications or servers. In the broadest sense, network infrastructure extends as well to the tools that IT and networking engineers use to monitor and manage network availability and performance.
Seamless application connectivity, consistent security controls, high availability, and end-to-end network visibility and policy control are critical for any business application.
Virtually all workloads rely on network connectivity. Users typically access applications remotely rather than running them on their local computers. Businesses manage devices through the network, which they can use to track device availability, install updates and so on. It is also common to share files over the network, and microservices applications depend on internal networks to transmit data between microservices.
Each of these use cases requires a reliable network infrastructure. Network infrastructure provides the functionality necessary to move data between IT resources that depend on the network to communicate. In addition, network infrastructure can be designed to help optimize the performance and security of devices and applications. For example, you could create a network infrastructure that enforces micro-segmentation between workloads to reduce the risk that a security issue with one workload will spread to others.
A network infrastructure stack consists of OSI Layer 2 to Layer 7 networking, security, and load balancing services for the application workloads. Network components typically include switching, routing, load balancers, network firewalls, IDS/IPS and advanced threat prevention, and networking and security operations services.
Modern environments typically include both software-based and hardware-based components. The software components provide application-focused, cloud-based network functionality, such as distributed networking, security, and load balancing. Meanwhile, hardware components typically provide the network underlay functionality necessary for connecting to physical infrastructure.
To be more specific, key components of modern network infrastructure include:
- Networking hardware devices: In an on-premises environment or private data center, businesses typically need to set up their own physical network routers, switches, repeaters, and other equipment necessary to supply the physical infrastructure that serves as the backbone of their network.
- Software-defined network resources: Exposing applications and services directly to physical network infrastructure slows down application deployment. Modern networking strategies leverage software-defined networking, which provides greater flexibility and control over how the network is defined and provisioned. For example, software defined networking makes it possible to divide a single physical network into multiple software-defined virtual networks, which you can then host workloads that you want to isolate from one another at the network level with policies tied to the workload.
- Monitoring and management tools: Tools that allow engineers to track the health and security of network infrastructure are critical for detecting problems like high latency rates (which cause slow data movement across the network), dropped packets (which occur when data transferred over the network fails to reach its destination) and unusual network traffic (which could result from malicious activity, like attempts to launch distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks to disrupt critical network services).
To an extent, these components are overlapping categories. Many of the network infrastructure resources that you can implement using physical hardware, like switches, could also be implemented using software without a dedicated physical infrastructure layer. Network monitoring and management features are sometimes built into network hardware and software resources, too. So, rather than thinking of hardware, software and tooling as three distinct elements of network infrastructure, think of them as broad categories that often blend together and overlap on modern, complex networks.
What to consider when designing network infrastructure
When designing a new network infrastructure or planning updates to an existing one, it's important to consider the following factors:
- Availability: Depending on the workloads you intend to host on your network, you may be able to tolerate varying degrees of network downtime and packet loss. Network infrastructure that needs to support 99.9 percent application availability, for example, will require the ability to provide more bandwidth than a network that only needs to deliver 99.5 percent availability.
- Performance: Network performance requirements, too, can vary depending on workloads and use cases. For example, if you are running an application that needs to process data in real time, you will typically want extremely low latency – delays measured in single-digit milliseconds. In contrast, an application that processes data in batches may be able to tolerate latency rates of several hundred milliseconds while meeting its performance goals.
- Security: Network infrastructure contributes significantly to security because many threats originate through the network. In designing a network infrastructure, strive to make your network resilient against security threats by, for example, dividing a physical network into multiple virtual networks to segment workloads. In addition, be sure that you have the right network monitoring and management tools in place within your network infrastructure to detect and block network-based attacks..
- Management: Complex network designs can increase network performance and security, but they also make networks more difficult to manage and monitor. Consider the staffing resources available to support your network, as well as the degree to which you can use network automation to streamline operations, to strike the right balance between network infrastructure complexity and manageability.
To be sure, network infrastructure is only of several key factors that shape overall workload availability, performance, security, and manageability. However, given the foundational role that the network plays in most modern workloads, building a strong network infrastructure from the start – and taking steps to update and optimize your network infrastructure over time – is a critical step toward keeping your systems running as smoothly and efficiently as possible and delivering an excellent end-user experience.
VMware NSX® is the network virtualization and security platform that enables a software-defined approach to networking that extends across data centers, clouds, and application frameworks. NSX provides a complete layer 2 to layer 7 network infrastructure stack necessary for the availability, performance, and security needs of connected workloads. NSX reproduces the entire network model in software, enabling any network topology—from simple to complex multitier networks—to be created and provisioned in seconds.
Tanzu Service Mesh provides advanced, end-to-end connectivity, security, and insights for modern applications—across application end-users, microservices, APIs, and data—enabling compliance with Service Level Objectives (SLOs) and data protection and privacy regulations.
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VMware Aria Automation is a multi-cloud infrastructure automation platform that enables Infrastructure as Code with support for infrastructure pipelining and iterative development.