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Optics in the Clouds: How will OFC/NFOEC address cloud computing?

By Casimer DeCusatis, Ph.D. Distinguished Engineer IBM System Networking, CTO Strategic Alliances Member, IBM Academy of Technology IBM Corporation

As we gear up for the 2013 OFC/NFOEC conference presentations, cloud computing is certainly one of the most anticipated hot topics.  The information technology industry continues to deploy dynamic, multi-tenant cloud computing environments for applications ranging from retail and banking to video distribution.  It’s become clear that cloud technology is a significant driver for optical networking, and that optical networks designed for the cloud have unique characteristics.  In this blog, I’ll talk about how cloud computing is changing the face of data networking, and point out some of the things to look for at this year’s OFC/NFOEC meeting.

Cloud computing has become something of a buzzword these days; it’s difficult to get an exact definition of what it means.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) says that cloud computing is characterized by on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid and elastic resource provisioning, and the means to meter service at various quality levels (http://csrc.nist.gov/groups/SNS/cloud-computing/ ).  On the other hand, a more popular perception of the cloud is simply a virtual data center where you can store everything from family photos to critical business data without worrying about the infrastructure costs.  This has led to the concept of “X as a service”, where X can be your choice of networking, computing, storage, platform, infrastructure, or a host of other things.  This is certainly not a new concept; as early as  1961, John McCarthy, in a speech about time-sharing given to celebrate MIT's centennial, stated that “computation may be some day organized as a public utility.” (http://www.bsmreview.com/bsm_cloudcomputing.shtml ).  It’s taken decades for the technology to become available which makes this vision a reality today, but we still have a long way to go before cloud computing reaches its fullest potential.

Let’s consider why data networking is such an important part of cloud computing.  One of the salient features of the cloud is highly virtualized compute, storage, and network resources.  This is the means by which we achieve the characteristics of the NIST definition of a cloud, such as on-demand self-service.  Highly virtualized servers have been around for a long time, ever since IBM introduced the concept on the System/360 series of mainframes, but more recently virtualization has been widely adopted by other server platforms.  Virtualization of the network is now the next big frontier. 

For example, In order to move virtual machines (VMs) from one location to another, the network attributes of the VM need to move as well (such as the MAC address, IP address, or access control list).  This is facilitated by a new generation of switches that handle port profile migration, using either industry standard or vendor proprietary protocols.  Storage resources must likewise be accessible from anywhere, so the role of the storage area network (SAN) is changing.  Modern SANs not only support higher data rates (up to 16 Gbit/s) but also accommodate consolidation of the storage and network interfaces into a single switch platform.  As data is consolidated, higher bandwidths are required; there’s sure to be discussion at OFC/NFOEC about the challenges of 100 Gbit/s networking, which is expected to see widespread adoption in the next few years. 

Tighter integration of servers, storage, and networking has led to the development of cloud computing appliances – factory integrated solutions which can quickly and easily be turned into a cloud computing environment.  While these systems still consist of multiple tacks of equipment, they allow users to deploy software profiles for their most common applications, in the same way that you can download applications for your smart phone or tablet computer.  Want to deploy a high frequency stock trading application?  Just download the profile which will automatically configure your servers, network, and storage as required.  This is making clouds easier to deploy than ever before; applications like IBM’s Smart Cloud Enterprise or  PureSystems solutions (http://www.ibm.com/ibm/puresystems/us/en/op-ad.html )  are just a few examples of how data networking has become an indispensible part of the cloud. 

Speaking of software, the cloud computing world is also excited about software defined networking (SDN).  This technology separates the data plane and control plane of a network switch, and uses a remote SDN controller to manipulate traffic flows.  This means that you can optimize the performance of your cloud applications as never before.  For example, if you want to download some video, the video packets are currently routed through the network based on traffic routing decisions made at each local switch in the data path.  SDN promises to provide end-to-end optimization, including redundant paths, and to improve the end user experience by considering factors which the local switches might never know about otherwise.  All the major service providers have announced SDN plans; this is sure to be a hot topic during the cloud discussions at OFC/NFOEC.

Service providers will also be interested in technology which interconnects multiple data centers over extended distances.  Companies like Google are already using SDN and other optical networking technologies to groom bandwidth on their networks (http://www.1-4-5.net/~dmm/sdnrg/IETF84/presentations/SDN%20at%20Google%20-%20IETF84%20IRTF%20meeting-YES.pdf  ).  And all the major wide area network (WAN) vendors will be interested in 100G links over the metro area.  Look for companies like Adva, Ciena, Huawei, and many more to present their views of how the WAN will evolve to handle cloud traffic in the coming years, as the global cloud network market grows to around $240 B by 2020. 

One of the reasons for widespread adoption of cloud computing is the appeal of a “pay as you go” model for IT infrastructure.  By shifting the focus away from time consuming manual tasks, such as managing infrastructure and supporting legacy applications, cloud enabled delivery services free up resources for strategic, innovative business solutions that promise new revenue streams.  And these benefits continue to build up as additional applications are migrated to the cloud.  Responding to this trend, networks have become “application aware”, and provide additional value by delivering new services and real client-facing value.  At the same time, reductions in both capital and operating expense are ongoing concerns, which are addressed by innovative new optical transceiver technologies and tighter integration between optical network hardware and software. 

As you can see, there’s a lot more to cloud computing than I can discuss in just one blog.  For the full story on how optical technology and networking is changing the way the world computes, be sure to visit one of the many presentations or vendor exhibits at OFC/NFOEC 2013, or if you’d like to discuss it further drop me a line on Twitter @Dr_Casimer

Disclaimer: Opinions, interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by IBM.

Posted: 7 November 2012 by Casimer DeCusatis, Ph.D. Distinguished Engineer IBM System Networking, CTO Strategic Alliances Member, IBM Academy of Technology IBM Corporation | with 0 comments

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The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition (OFC)  or its sponsors.