The reconstruction of data center hardware by Doug Mohney
I've been following Facebook's Open Compute project for a while, pondering its potential impact upon the data center world and the ecosystem of hardware manufacturers. Facebook's VP of infrastructure Frank Frankovsky has been talking about deconstructing and rearranging the functions of switches and servers, with an eye to making servers much more easily upgradable with less total capital expense. Add in the Carrier Ethernet and routers discussions I had at NetEvents Americas last week in Miami, and it's clear that you'd better look over your network and server procurement plans for the next three years.
Software-Defined Networking (SDN) was the big topic down in Miami. One speaker described the current crop of routers as being as proprietary as the mainframe days of old, with about as much flexibility. Using the recently announced OpenFlow standard, SDN pulls the control plane out of a physical Ethernet switch and into a controller.
OpenFlow is the "Android of SDN," according to Dan Pitt, Executive Director of the Open Networking Foundation. The software interface controls how packets are forwarded through network switches and is supplemented by a set of being-defined global management interfaces upon which more advanced management tools can be built.
SDN and OpenFlow, like the Open Compute movement, are being driven by service providers; in this case enabling network owners and operators of networks better control over their networks, allowing them to optimize network behavior to best serve customer needs. Initial members of the Open Networking Foundation were Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon, and Yahoo --- not a hardware vendor among them when launched.
For data centers, the Open Networking Foundation touts how SDNs can be used to reduce energy usage by allowing some routers to be powered down during off-peak periods. This is both a "green" thing and a money saving feature. Network operators will be better able to program and fine tune networks on the fly via software, gaining flexibility without having to spend years getting new routing protocols written. And using OpenFlow will enable the use of standardized CPUs, breaking from the use of customized chipsets and operating systems and all of those associated expenses.
Perhaps the most powerful trend here is customers driving changes in product offerings as network hardware manufacturers -- and we'll lump the server guys into that category -- fail to innovate, producing bigger/faster boxes and reacting rather than producing something different. The paradigm of simply bigger boxes every year is breaking -- turn to the PC industry dealing with tablets and then flip the page to Microsoft's Surface, a tablet breaking free of the me-too of Android offerings.
It is all good for the green data center movement. Newer hardware will continue to incorporate power savings and more compute-per-watt, while more sophisticated software will enable more efficient usage of available resources.
But it's also going to cause headaches as data center planners grapple with a flurry of new hardware and design models to mesh open compute-style servers with SDN-based routers. A savings in power may partially be offset by the need for brainpower to figure out all the new tools in a new toolbox.