The Cloud Ate My Network

During VMworld® 2016, some of the brightest minds in networking gathered for FUTURE:NET, a vendor-neutral networking conference convened to look at new trends and technologies shaping the industry.

From Hardware to Software

Networking is undergoing a rapid change from hardware-centric architectures to software-defined models. The cloud market is maturing rapidly, and network virtualization is creating higher levels of networking abstraction. Networking is no longer all about physical components.

Today’s networking teams are responsible for connecting both the switches and servers in the racks, and also the virtual components inside those servers. With this burst of connectivity, new ideas and challenges are coming into focus.

As VMware Chief Technology Strategy Officer Guido Appenzeller noted at the event, “You have to suddenly create networks where the hardware is no longer owned by you.”

Verizon’s Barry Larish emphasized the need to “prepare the runway” to get people acclimated to the new, software-defined way of doing things. “That skill-set shift is not going to happen overnight—and I think that’s OK,” he said.

Onsite or Offsite?

Increasingly, many companies utilize a hybrid cloud environment, preferring to keep some data on-site and some in the cloud. For these companies, IT professionals must focus on which services to offer on-premises or off-premises.

One illustrative example is Verizon. At FUTURE:NET, Verizon’s Bryan Larish described the company’s dual approach to IT infrastructure: new microservice-based applications live in the cloud, and traditional applications remain in private data centers. The company continually re-evaluates where applications are best hosted.

Verizon’s journey to the cloud is representative. Enterprise data center managers need to focus on services, rather than hardware, and where those services should be hosted to best serve the business.

Many Paths to the Cloud

John Spiegel, who manages IT for Columbia Sportswear, told the audience at FUTURE:NET that, until recently, the company had yet to grasp the significance of software-defined data centers (SDDC) and still thought of networking in terms of hardware. “If there’s money to spare, you might get a faster router this year,” he said, by way of example.

Spiegel sought to change that. He wanted a cloud-like architecture, and when he couldn’t convince the company to purchase a cloud service, he decided to build it himself using tools such as VMware NSX.

“I’ve had to fight tooth and nail to keep this project alive,” he said, despite the fact that his solution lowers capital and operational expenditures by 30 to 50 percent.

As Spiegel’s story shows, IT staff should understand that, even among IT professionals, the shift to SDDC and cloud is not widely understood.

Is Big Data Enough?

The scale of public clouds is enormous, but for a company like Thomson Reuters, which continually maintains an enormous data footprint, it’s far too small.

“The kick in the head for me is, ‘Yeah, our databases only go up to a terabyte.’ I throw up a terabyte database every day,” said Mark Bluhm, Thomson Reuters senior vice president of global technology operations.

Bluhm’s remarks at FUTURE:NET underlined the idea that the cloud is not a panacea. For companies dealing in big data and heavily regulated markets, the current state of cloud technology may not meet everyone’s needs. As cloud technologies continue to spread across the enterprise, and as companies continue to leverage big data for competitive advantage, cloud solutions will need to mature to meet changing business needs. What is considered big data today may not be in the future.

What is needed is more, not less, abstraction, in order to control and modify networks without changing routers, switches, patch panels, and protocols. There is currently no way to do this, but a nascent, open-source language called P4 has been developed to address this specific need.

Stay Tuned

Networking professionals should look for training opportunities concerning technologies that include SDDC, cloud, P4, containers, and new management tools enabled by abstraction. Networking is in the midst of a sea change. Learning about new networking technologies will help IT professionals explain, build out, and customize solutions to meet changing enterprise needs.

To learn more, download the paper by MIT Technology Review Custom, in partnership with VMware, “Pioneers and Giants: Insights on the Future of Networking.