Consumed by the duties of their day-to-day working lives, IT professionals often forget that data center networking isn't really about faster throughput, more bandwidth, or enhanced connectivity. At the end of the day, it's about improving the user experience. After all, if users can’t access data and applications in a timely fashion, productivity suffers, and the enormous investment in building and maintaining an advanced network architecture is all for naught.
At many organizations, however, even though metrics like bandwidth and throughput have seen dramatic increases in the enterprise of late, enhancing the user experience, many users continue to experience better performance elsewhere – primarily on their personal networks. As Chris Preimesberger notes in his latest slideshow at ENP’s sister publication eWeek, the average enterprise employee is given only 41 kbps on the enterprise network, while at home 1 Mbps is not uncommon, many users seeing 10 Mbps or more. Small wonder, then, that many employees are diverting workloads, sometimes sensitive, critical workloads, onto their personal infrastructure.
Fortunately, improving network performance doesn't always require more bandwidth or the deployment of high-speed components anymore. In the new era of virtual and software defined networking, many believe that making networks more agile, rather than larger and more powerful, is the key to enhanced user performance. Huawei, in fact, is building its entire SDN architecture around agile switch architectures like the S12700. The company says that features like automated network deployment and provisioning enable the platform to more easily adapt to changing workload and application environments. Not only does this unleash untapped network capacity often wasted in traditional network infrastructure, it also provides a more responsive enterprise data environment for end users.
This kind of flexibility has its consequences, however, particularly if network configuration and management capabilities are pushed onto the application layer, as some futurists predict. Chief among them is the possibility that applications will get bogged down contesting for network resources or will in some way introduce configurations that cause overall network health to deteriorate. The most obvious remedy for this is thorough analysis of application network configuration modules, particularly the insertion messages they send to the controller to allocate resources. But even here, the enterprise needs to be careful not to overdo the analysis and introduce too much latency into the system.
According to my colleague Jude Chao, SDN developers are already working on new generations of network configuration management technology. A system called VeriFlow showed impressive results during recent tests at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), performing message inspection and analysis in 1 millisecond or less with little or no impact on either TCP connection setup throughput or flow modification message throughput.
This may be well and good for the wired portion of the enterprise network, but what about the wireless side? As more workers gravitate away from the desktop toward the laptop and smartphone, wireless connectivity will need to quickly come up to wired's levels, which is why bandwidth concerns still dominate. Ideally, organizations would like to enable parity between wired and wireless networks, but the industry is not quite there yet. The latest WLAN standard is the 7 Gbps 802.11ad “WiGig” approach that operates in the still-unlicensed 60 GHz range. This “small cell” approach is already drawing a fair amount of venture capital in preparation for the spec’s final release next February. It’s a good bet that volume shipments of WiGig systems are just around the corner.
The network user experience can be measured in a number of ways: access and response times, availability, and reliability, all of which will likely see steady improvement as enterprises deploy new physical and virtual architectures. But probably the most profound change affecting users will be the ability to tailor the network to their own purposes, fostering both a heightened experience and more efficient use of resources.
Having spent a lifetime trapped within the confines of available bandwidth and throughout, most users should find the transition to the new paradigm rather liberating.