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Virtualization and cloud exposed legacy data center

networks as fragile and inefficient. This primer explains


how Ethernet fabrics meet new demands.
Increasingly complex infrastructure demands and evolving changes in
application delivery are revealing the fragile state of legacy data center
networks. Fabrics offer one alternative for meeting the demands of the modern
data center.

What is an Ethernet fabric?


An Ethernet fabric is a type of network topology that collapses traditional
three-tier data center switching architectures into one or two tiers, ensures
network traffic is never more than two hops away from its destination and
operationally behaves like one big switch. The goal of an Ethernet fabric is to
increase the scalability, performance and resilience of highly virtualized and
cloud-ready data centers.

"It allows multiple conversations to happen across the fabric simultaneously


but still maintains this expectation that all of the systems still look like they're
adjacent to each other," said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research.
"In pure networking terms, it's going to be entirely done in a Layer
2 environment."

Fabrics also support equal-cost multipath forwarding at Layer 2 and Layer


3with "fine-grained, flow-based load balancing," according to Gartner analysts
Caio Misticone and Evan Zeng in a research note, "Technology Overview for
Ethernet Switching Fabric."
Vendors typically sell commercial Ethernet fabrics as a product suite
comprising specialized hardware and software. Fabrics can be implemented
using various architectures, the most common among them leaf-spine and
mesh.

Several terms -- including data center fabric, switch fabric, network


fabric and Ethernet fabric, or some amalgamation of all four -- are often used
interchangeably to refer to this topology. This has caused some confusion in
the market, as many of these terms have alternate meanings. While some
experts favor switch fabric, the phrase may also refer to the switching
mechanism in a physical switch. Data center fabric is sometimes used to refer
to fabric architectures for converged data and storage networks. Network
fabric is a broad term that is sometimes used to mean network
architecture. Ethernet fabric is more precise than the first three, although it
should be noted Brocade also uses Ethernet Fabric as a commercial product
name. For the purposes of this primer, we will use the term Ethernet fabric to
refer to flatter, highly scalable topologies that enable low latency via one- or
two-hop connectivity in data center switching.

Why would you need an Ethernet fabric?


Applications -- and by extension, the networks that delivered them -- used to
be a lot simpler. Application traffic primarily flowed north and south between
three tiers of switching that connected servers to clients.

The widespread adoption of server virtualization, however, transformed these


devices, enabling these once-static architectures to become virtual machines
capable of exploiting a data center's entire capacity by moving traffic among
multiple physical servers. Applications were also becoming more complex,
with various functions being broken off into different systems and components
that would need to communicate across servers.
This influx of east-west traffic -- that is, traffic between and among servers --
has strained traditional three-tier switching architectures and limited
scalability, said Hanselman of 451 Research. Data would now have to pass
through more hops to reach its destination, adding latency and consequently
degrading performance.

Meanwhile, the performance and resilience of data center networks were


further hamstrung by the pervasive use of Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), an
algorithm that prevents bridge loops by shutting down redundant paths in
favor of a single active link that transmits data. While STP is sufficient for
conventional traffic flows and application architectures, it is an imperfect and
fragile approach that uses bandwidth inefficiently.

Ethernet fabrics -- along with complementary technologies such


as TRILLand Shortest Path Bridging (SPB) -- offer an alternative to the
complexity and inefficiencies of three-tiered networks and Spanning Tree. An
interconnected fabric combines the visibility of Layer 2 with the operational
benefits of Layer 3.

"The idea is you can see everything," Hanselman said. "It simplifies the way
an application needs to think about what it needs to do [in that] it doesn't have
to figure out [the right path]," he said. "[Nodes] can simply all send off a packet
into the fabric, and the fabric takes care of getting it to that person."

What are some of the limitations of an


Ethernet fabric?
While a fabric offers many benefits, there is one major challenge that can be a
deal-breaker for some network engineers: It almost always requires a single-
vendor network.
"Fabrics give you the tools to operate much more flexibly, but you have to
make a commitment to a particular vendor," Hanselman said. "The big
question for most [enterprises] is about the willingness to commit. If you want
to be able to keep multivendor networks, it's really hard to go with any fabric
capabilities -- and for some folks, that's a big problem."

With a few exceptions, most vendors have created proprietary enhancements


to standard protocols, such as TRILL and SPB, he said. This has rendered
most vendors' fabrics incompatible with their competitors' infrastructure.

"The other piece to this is fabrics are not infinite [in capacity], and there are
scaling limitations," Hanselman said. "When you get into the multi-thousand-
port range, you're starting to get to an area where the management
headaches [are such that] you should consider segmenting."

Does everyone need an Ethernet fabric?


Fabrics were once seen as the decisive path to the next-generation data
center. But the emergence of software-defined networking (SDN) and the
growing adoption of cloud computing has given network engineers and data
center pros more factors to consider. Although Ethernet fabrics and SDNaren't
mutually exclusive, the former is more mature and currently has greater
commercial availability.

"People are looking for ways to simplify provisioning and simplify


deployments. Some of them are doing it with relatively simple network
architectures and automation tools, other folks are doing it with more radical
approaches like SDN, and other folks are saying the conventional Ethernet
fabric approach is good enough and 'We don't care about the long term,'" said
Joe Skorupa, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "And there
are other folks saying Ethernet fabrics look transitional. The [question] is, how
soon do you need [to upgrade]?"
For his part, Hanselman contends that fabrics are a must-have for large
enterprises that are looking to remove the brittleness from their data center
networks.

"Realistically today, everybody should be running fabric. There are so many


good reasons to have the flexibility, the capacity and the ease of
management," Hanselman said. "Questions start to come in on how you make
that transition. If you're building a brand-new network today, the question is,
'Which fabric do you pick?'

"If you have an existing network and you want to be able to transition to fabric,
the issue is operational," he added. "Networks that have been running
Spanning Tree have always been so fragile that they are typically treated with
kid gloves and babied into any extension or change."

Although some vendors have developed some stackable designs for the
midmarket, many smaller companies don't have the scalability needs to justify
the investment in fabrics.

"For some companies, a single switch is so bloody big you don't need a
multiswitch network," Skorupa said. "If you can get several hundred 10-gig
ports on a single chassis, for a lot of companies, that's big enough."