Friday, August 5, 2011

The "Fabric" of our lives

Just like we don't stop to consider how our electricity or mail gets to us, neither do we put much thought into how data moves around our networks and the Internet.  Every day we sit down to send and receive emails, browse the Internet, and read the news.  Data flows to and from our devices and we never see exactly how - it just happens.  (When it doesn't we call IT, right?)

Everything that I described above is completely and totally dependent upon networking.  The best way to think of a network is to think of plumbing inside of a house.  The pipes move water (and other things) to and from the source and the final destination.  Until recently, most networks have been constructed in what are called "tiers", or layers.  The cores of networks are found in data centers where most data is stored.  Branching out from the core, the networks further consist of layers made up of various pieces of hardware, usually a conglomeration of routers and switches.  In simple terms, wherever you have a physical presence, such as an office, there you will find hardware that creates the network on which you operate.

Over the past few years technology has evolved very rapidly.  When you hear terms like "virtualization", "the cloud",  and "IPv6", behind the scenes the demand for fast and copious network bandwidth have been skyrocketing.  The old-style networks that first emerged in the 1980s have not been able to adequately scale to meet these demands.  There are many reasons for this problem.  With the conglomeration of devices, often times there have been as many as six or seven hops between origination and destination for data moving across a network.  Like a local train stopping at every station, the traffic moves too slowly and with too much latency.  The newer technologies don't work well with these limitations in a network with so many layers to work through.  As a result, there has been an intense focus on finding innovative new ways to move data more quickly from point to point.

The current pinnacle of network design has created a new type of network technology called "Fabric", as evidenced in new cutting edge products like Juniper Network's "Q Fabric".  Fabric technology has been created to eliminate a lot of the need for remote networking devices and software protocols.  The design aims to utilize data-center class equipment to do most of the routing, switching, and "thinking" for the network.  By moving away from a reliance on many remote peripherals, Fabric technology is reducing the number of layers in the network from six to two.  Not only does this evolve us from the metaphor of the local train into the express train, it eliminates a lot of the complexity of a widely dispersed network.  One of the ultimate goals of the Fabric technology may be that the network equipment in the data center may one day communicate directly with your computer.  When that happens you can say goodbye to your home Linksys device!

In the next five years when you download a full-feature, high definition movie in just 10 seconds, you will probably be moving your data over a Fabric network.

[My thanks and credit go to Shehzad Merchant for his excellent article and reference information on Fabric technologies.]

1 comment:

  1. You mean it all doesn't flow around in tubes?