Integrated network fabric solutions come with a tantalizing array of features to ease deployment of network devices, simplify network configuration and expansion, and maximize network links — all while minimizing data center costs.
Under unrelenting budgetary pressure, higher education is as cost-sensitive as ever, and vendors command a premium for integrated network fabric solutions. Network engineers can leverage these technologies while keeping costs low by looking at network fabric from a slightly different perspective.
Staff salaries are considered a sunk cost, while additional equipment or software funding can be difficult to obtain. It is common for departments or labs to seek some control over their IT resources. Both of those factors lead decision-makers to leverage staff time rather than spend money, leading to collaborations between central IT and IT professionals attached to departments or labs. Products that allow for collaborative administration, multitenancy and self-service provide value and allow central IT to focus on strategy while departmental staff and researchers maintain flexibility and agility.
We can manage a network in the same way we would manage a fleet of servers, and leverage a few of the same techniques.
Virtual Extensible LAN (VXLAN) is a simple way to encapsulate logical networks and abstract them from their physical implementation. It’s also the building block required to create networks whose configuration is driven by software mechanisms, simplifying network installation and avoiding the time-consuming and error-prone reconfiguration of network devices to maximize network utilization.
Consider other components of the network fabric value proposition — network devices, configuration management, monitoring and auditing. Develop sound procedures to install network devices in your network using standard configuration templates.
The Really Awesome New Cisco confIg Differ (RANCID) is an open-source tool that can be set up quickly to track configuration changes and record them in a version control system. It also allows for commands to be executed easily across all devices on a network. With a small amount of scripting effort, this basic tool can be turned into a powerful mechanism to manage an entire network and ensure configuration consistency. Record changes in a version control system to easily create auditing tools with just a few scripts.
Software-defined networking (SDN) builds conceptually upon VXLAN, providing much more powerful mechanisms to define the entire network path between endpoints. The mechanisms to configure the network (the control plane) are completely decoupled from the mechanisms that deliver packets (the data plane). SDN is most effective where the entire end-to-end network is SDN-capable, which generally requires significant equipment replacement or upgrade. Research networks and forward-looking institutions should follow SDN technology developments closely.