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Data center fabrics promise flatter, simpler networks

Data center fabrics reduce complexity and yield economies of scale, but setting them up takes a bit of work. Here's how two organizations got payback.

By Esther Shein
July 16, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - When the Government Employees Health Association (GEHA) overhauled its data center to build a fabric infrastructure, the process was "really straightforward," unlike that of many IT projects, says Brenden Bryan, senior manager of enterprise architecture. "We haven't had any gotchas or heartburn, with me looking back and saying, 'I wish I made that decision differently.' "

Based in Kansas City, Mo., GEHA is the nation's second largest health and dental plan, processing claims for more than 1 million people, including federal employees, retirees and their families. The main motive for switching to a fabric model, says Bryan, was to simplify and consolidate operations and move away from a legacy Fibre Channel SAN environment.

When he started working at GEHA in August 2010, Bryan says he inherited a fairly typical infrastructure: a patchwork of components from different vendors with multiple points of failure. The association also wanted to virtualize its mainframe environment and turn it into a distributed architecture. "We needed an infrastructure that was redundant and highly available," he explains. Once the new infrastructure was in place, the plan was to then move all of GEHA's Tier 2 and Tier 3 apps to it and then move the Tier 1 claims processing system.

GEHA deployed Ethernet switches and routers from Brocade, and now, more than a year after the six-month project was completed, Bryan says the association has a high-speed environment and a 20-to-1 ratio of virtual machines to blade hardware.

"I can keep the number of physical servers I have to buy to a minimum and get more utilization out of them," he says. "It enables me to drive the efficiencies out of my storage as well as my computing."

Implementing a data center fabric does require some planning, however. It means having to upgrade and replace old switches with new switching gear because of the different traffic configuration used in fabrics, explains Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research. "Then you have to re-architect your network and reconnect servers."

Moving Flat and Forward

A data center fabric is a flatter, simpler network that's optimized for horizontal traffic flows. In comparison, traditional networks are designed more for client/server setups that send traffic from the server to the core of the network and back out, Kerravala explains.

In a fabric model, the traffic moves horizontally across the network and virtual machine, "so it's more a concept of server-to-server connectivity," he says. Fabrics are flatter and have no more than two tiers, whereas legacy networks have three or more tiers. Storage networks have featured simpler designs for years, and now data networks need to migrate to that model, Kerravala says.



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