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Managing the virtual network: Challenges and opportunities

Managing the virtual network: Challenges and opportunities

Network management is a moving target. Phil Parent identifies the challenges and infrastructures in managing virtual networks

Network management is a moving target. The task is made more complex if the network is distributed amongst in-house, remote and ‘in the cloud’ infrastructure. And then, on top of that, you have virtualised servers and desktops that don’t increase the hardware footprint but increase the number of available services. But while the network management tasks become more demanding, more organisations are looking to cut costs and rationalise resources. So you have the same old story…network managers are being asked to do more with less.

But for resellers, this provides a huge opportunity. Today’s network management tools are smarter than ever, can handle the complexities of virtualised and distributed network components and most have the capabilities to be managed remotely. They therefore open a significant opportunity for resellers to offer managed network services for the overworked network manager clients. Or they can help their network manager clients come to grips with the tools by offering services around education, training and professional services. And for those customers that don’t have dedicated network management staff in-house but are buying into more complex virtualised and cloud-based networks, the opportunities for selling management tools and services are growing exponentially.

Virtualisation in a nutshell

Before resellers can help their customers figure out what is happening and why on their networks, they have to understand the rapidly evolving virtualised network technology that is driving ICT today. The leading virtualisation solution is VMware with its ESX hypervisor. VCenter, the tool for configuring and monitoring the virtualised environment, offers extensive capabilities for configuring each virtual server and its hosted virtual machines. But VCenter, and similar virtualisation management tools, only manage one system at a time. In order to bring the servers into the overall operations, ie applications, networking and storage, management tools must be able to interact with the physical and virtual components seamlessly. This is where the ‘virtual management tools’ come in.

“The management of a physical network can be quite simple at one level – it’s a case of deciding if the box is running, has enough overall resource and is not adversely impacting the business,” says Raewyn Hudson, networking business manager at HP NZ. “Physical networks can be managed effectively with some simple tools and a couple of good engineers.

“I believe the biggest difference between the physical and virtual network,” continues Hudson, “is the discipline and approach to management between the traditional network operators and the server teams. Server teams tend to be considerably more experienced in the VM/HyperV concepts, orchestration tools and operational approaches than traditional network teams who have in the past driven these environments via command line interfaces. This legacy approach by networking engineers, with effectively a device by device configuration, can no longer work. Increasingly there is need for networks to be application aware and application optimised. VM instances and dynamic application consumption by mobile users necessitates rapid and dynamic configurations that traditional network teams cannot keep up with.

“Once you get to managing virtual instances within a physical box,” says Hudson, “then you have a whole new level of complexity. If you’re looking to achieve decent availability and utilisation numbers, then you really need to be focused on orchestration with the tools doing the bulk of the work – there is a lot more planning and policy definition required to get a virtual network running well.”

Linking networks, SANs to the virtualised server

“Managing a virtual network revolves around linking front-end applications to the back end storage,” says Phillip Coates, systems engineering manager, Brocade Australia and New Zealand. “To a certain extent, virtualised network management tools, like the Brocade Network Advisor, guide the reseller in the process and present the key metrics for monitoring storage and network performance in a dashboard interface for the end user. But implementing tools like these takes skills in both IP and SAN. Resellers need to understand the dynamics, as well as the network topologies, as they configure the management tools, especially as applications move between virtualised servers depending on loads and requirements.”

“For instance,” continues Coates, “depending on how the applications are structured, they can either move directly from one virtualised server to another, the so-called east/west architecture, or move up to the controller to be assigned to a virtualised server, the north/south architecture. Virtualised management tools support both, but the east/west model is significantly faster and removes bottlenecks. These are very technical issues, but the point is that resellers have to have a keen understanding of the technologies involved in order to provide the most benefits for their customers.”

Applications catching up with virtualisation

“With a virtualised system you can spin up a new server remotely in minutes,” says Adrian Noblett, solutions architect for APAC at F5 Networks. “The challenge is to be able to match that agility with the provisioning of applications. This is where the software defined network (SDN) and application control plane architecture come into play. SDN is an approach to building computer networks that separate and abstract elements of these systems while the architecture delivers application layer, layer 7, SDN services to bring enhanced agility, application intelligence and programmability to software defined datacentres. The benefit is that users can reprovision virtualised servers, networks and applications from a dashboard instead of physically touching the machines.”

This is quite technical stuff and F5 recognises the need for advanced training. “The F5 Unity Partner Programme requires a certain level of expertise,” says Noblett, “and partners are encouraged to have accredited technical staff on board. We offer online and classroom-based training that covers both sales and technical issues. Plus we offer a full range of professional services to back-up resellers as they install F5 solutions. Ideally, we can mentor resellers in the first few instances and then they can take over more of the responsibilities as they gain experience.”

The virtualisation journey

“The road towards virtualisation is a journey that will have a huge impact for both resellers and end users,” says Arron Patterson, chief technology officer at EMC, the parent company of VMware. “If resellers want to remain relevant, they’ll have to understand both their customer’s objectives and the technology. Resellers and customers are growing in the awareness of where and how virtualisation can provide benefits for both parties. The resellers who incorporate virtualisation into their ‘go to market’ strategies will prosper.”

Helping resellers get up to speed with virtualisation is a key component of EMC/VMware’s strategy. “We sponsor roadshows, in conjunction with our distributor Westcon,” says Patterson, “and also make an effort to get out for one-on-one sessions with resellers. We also have an audit tool, called the EMC Assessment Workbench, that resellers can install in client sites to evaluate the state of the client’s networks and components. We help the reseller interpret the results and prepare customised reports. Clients appreciate this service and we’ve seen a high uptake of our solutions at the conclusion of the assessment.”

(Sidebar)

Virtualised networks: A language all of its own

Virtualised networking, with quite specialised terminology and processes, is not the ideal point of entry for newcomers to the field. If you’re not already familiar with the Open System Interconnection (OSI) seven layer topology, you might want to skip this part and partake of some of the basic network training offered by the various vendors. Here are a few concepts that you need to fully understand before you can sell virtualised network management tools with confidence (or success, for that matter).

Hypervisor: A hypervisor, also called a virtual machine manager, is a program that allows multiple operating systems to share a single hardware host. The hypervisor controls the host processor and resources and ensures that each ‘virtual machine’ get enough resources to do what they do.

Application control plane architecture: The overall framework of users, applications and the network. The controller enables IT teams to deploy and provision application services on a per-application basis as rapidly as they can provision virtual machines. Aligning the right services - such as authentication, data protection, traffic management and acceleration - to each application provides a consistent user experience, especially as new applications are deployed or as existing applications are deployed across virtual and cloud environments.

Application delivery controllers: These controllers, which might be described as load balancers on steroids, provide a set of functions to optimise enterprise application environments. Enterprises use ADCs to optimise reliability, end-user performance, datacentre resource use and security for a variety of enterprise applications. ADCs are designed for datacentre applications and improve the performance of web-based and related applications by providing a suite of services at the network and application layers

Software-defined networking: An approach to networking in which control is decoupled from hardware and given to a software application called a controller. In a software-defined network (SDN), a network administrator can shape traffic from a centralised control console without having to touch individual switches. The administrator can change any network switch's rules when necessary - prioritising, de-prioritising or even blocking specific types of packets with a very granular level of control.


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