June 6, 2018

Next-generation networks: Past, present and future

Timur RassekhBy Timur Rassekh
System Engineer/Solution Architect
Arrow ECS

 

The information superhighway. I am old enough to recall the invention of what we know today as the “internet,” and remember how slow the 56 Kbps connection was while listening to the harmonious screeching sounds of the dial-up modem attempting to gain access to the inter-webs. Aside from becoming faster and being able to support more users and websites through better hardware, how we setup and manage computer networks hasn’t changed too much – until now. Now, we find ourselves in a paradox where the other complementary datacenter technologies, such as servers and compute, have gone down the virtualization and software path, while networking still seems to remain hardware centric. With the daunting and time-consuming task of deploying, maintaining, changing and refreshing networks, something had to give, and we can finally hear the seams bursting.

The Past

Now that the internet has been around for almost 20 years, it’s getting maxed out. Networks have remained the same, but the world of the internet has changed a lot since then. In the ’70s and ’80s, we were working off of main frames. In the ’90s, there was a big network shift, and LANs (local area networks) and WANs (wide area networks) were created. This is where internet protocol (IP) originated, and it was known as the second platform.

The Present

Now, there’s a new paradigm called the third platform. What caused this shift? Facebook, Google, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon and another billion plus websites – there are too many websites, devices and people on internet infrastructure of yesterday.

All of the companies mentioned above have some sort of cloud offering, or are using cloud infrastructure to provide their services. Cloud is a term we’re probably all very familiar with by now. Not those cumulus rain clouds out there, but that magical space where everything resides on the internet. The massive data centers that fill up an entire warehouse with fans humming louder than one million bees. This is where our applications, services and business of the future will reside entirely.

The existing network wasn’t designed for the needs that are currently being generated – there’s just not enough capacity to carry it all at the speed and performance level expected with supporting things like e-commerce and the social media platforms of today.

Also, we are unable to make changes to the network policies in a rapid and agile manner, thus causing major pain points when enterprises are trying to develop, test and deploy new applications. Executing these changes takes a lot of time and consumes the days of IT personnel, preventing them from investing their time into more developmental tasks. So, how are we tackling this problem?

Heading for next gen networks

Next gen networks

The Future

Enter a new concept known as software defined networking (SDN). This is the new next-generation network, also called “the new IP:” using software to make sure networks are running efficiently and at peak performance all of the time.

I recently rode a set of elevators in a building in Chicago. There were six in the lobby: three elevators opposite each other, with plaques above their doors labeling them A through F. When I approached, I couldn’t find an up or down arrow button to press to call the elevator. Instead, they had a touch screen on each wall that showed you a list of floors, e.g. 1-12, and you’d press the floor you want. Let’s say you select floor 7. The screen would change from the list of numbers to show an image of the six elevators, with an arrow pointing to the elevator you’re supposed to get on. Since the floor was already selected, it was strange for me to board the elevator and not see any buttons or numbers on the wall inside (this is taking the intelligence out of the switches), but only see a little display that listed all the floors this elevator car would be stopping at.

Of course, floor 7 was on that list, along with floors 5 and 9. I thought, “How efficient, there are only floor 5, 7, and 9 people in here, rather than floors 1-12 and the elevator car making a stop on each floor.” (Or in my networking mind, only vlan 5, 7, and 9 packets in here.) I had an aha moment, and coined the term “Software Defined Elevators,” or SDE, because rather than letting the individual elevator car (i.e. switch/router) make its decisions—where every person will hit the floor they need and jam pack the cars full of bodies—it takes the intelligence away from the elevator and passengers, and it decides what bodies to put in which cars to make the process of carrying people up and down more efficient. It also looks at the traffic coming in, and assigns which car to send to what floor, from an oversight or controller perspective. People don’t get to choose their floors; their elevator is chosen for them. This is the separation of the control plane and the forwarding plane. The forwarding plane will be basic “dumb” switches (the elevators) that are just forwarding packets as they are told to do by the intelligent software controller (the touch pad and software behind), i.e. the control plane.

Overall, SDN is a smart, intelligent, automated network that controls itself with guidance from humans to ensure that the flow of traffic is always efficient and transfer speeds are maximized. It uses software pre-coded with instructions to analyze network trends, then reports back to admins so they can have a deeper understanding of what’s going on. If there are errors or downed links, it can redirect and reroute traffic accordingly to ensure minimal down time, all while securing and protecting people and their data to ensure that the network is never compromised, thus offering agility and scalability for enterprises.

Platform-timeline.jpg

More changes we’re seeing

Now, software defined networking is coming to the forefront of discussions and is actually being implemented at giant datacenters like Google and Facebook. We’re seeing smarter hardware, like data center switches; smarter software, like VMware NSX; network functions virtualization (NFV); and virtual cluster switching (VCS), also known as intelligent switching, or distributed intelligence.

As SDN continues to find its place amongst enterprises and other verticals, we will see a further adoption of SDN and continued progression into the New IP.

If you have additional questions about next-generation networks or the new IP, please contact Timur Rassekh or your Arrow representative.