Dan's Take

Bringing Networking Back Home

Hyperconvergence means fewer appliances and simpler datacenter networking.

In my prehistoric days in the systems industry, networking functions were integrated into the host operating system and managed as part of  overall system management. This meant that the general purpose system was burdened by managing all networking functions, including:

  • Controlling networking devices
  • Managing network IO, including packing and unpacking network buffers
  • Managing directory services and network name translation
  • Compressing and decompressing data
  • Routing data packets
Emergence of the 'Herd-o'-Appliances' Mentality
In the industry's attempt to apply more processing power to the task and unburden general purpose systems, networking functions were moved to separate network switches (they were really just appliance servers designed to address networking functions.)

This meant that systems doing the actual application processing could be focused on specific functions, and the networking appliances could handle that function. The industry didn't stop there. Soon we saw database appliances, security appliances, storage appliances and appliances for just about every function or sub-function that made up an application.

Proprietary Problems
Unfortunately, many of these appliances were designed using proprietary microprocessors executing proprietary operating systems and proprietary applications. Since they were produced in relatively low volume, the cost of the microprocessors was high and the customers were forced to pay the full cost for development and support of both the embedded operating system and dedicated applications.

While the "herd-o'-appliances" thinking did improve overall performance and increase levels of availability and reliability, it also vastly increased datacenter complexity. The complexity led to the need for more specialists and greater depth of expertise. All of these different proprietary islands of computing functions also increased the attack surface available, leading to security problems. In addition, proprietary microprocessors didn't improve in performance and price as rapidly as industry standard x86 processors.

The Movement
A movement started to bring networking functions back to the main system in the form of Linux virtual machines (VMs). The benefit of this approach was that networking could be scaled up and down to address the requirements of enterprise workloads. Networking functions could also be migrated from machine to machine in the case of an impending system failure. Lower cost, off-the-shelf systems could be used for networking and other functions as required.

This move also meant that suppliers such as Dell could offer "open networking switches" based upon industry standard hardware that was designed to replace expensive networking servers. This also lead to suppliers like Pluribus Networks being able to offer products such as "ONIE-compliant Open Netvisor Linux (ONVL)," which could be easily adapted to work on switches offered by many different suppliers.

Dan's Take: Bring Networking Back Home
One of the trends we're seeing is to bring appliance server functions back under the control of the main system. Sometimes this trend leads to systems described as "converged," "hyperconverged," or even "ultra hyperconverged." Although I'm reminded a bit of The Powerpuff Girls "ultra super powers," this trend is a good one.

What were previously separate functions executing on herds of appliances can now be brought back home to the system in the form of VMs. Many formerly "special functions" can now be brought back into the main system enclosure and execute on general purpose blades, rather than requiring expensive, special-purpose hardware.

I expect as success stories mount for this approach, more and more suppliers will get on the bandwagon and offer their special added value technology in this form, rather than selling special purpose hardware.

About the Author

Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. He has been a business unit manager at a hardware company and head of corporate marketing and strategy at a software company.

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