WAN's role in converged data centers

Two acquisitions by major vendors on successive days in July highlighted the increased importance of networking in the server world: Dell acquired Force10 networks and Intel acquired Fulcrum Microsystems.
In both cases, market leaders acquired relatively small switching vendors as part of a broader strategy to build a converged data center offering. Motivated by high stakes well beyond networking alone, these deals will add deep pockets to 10GbE, 40GbE, and 100GbE adoption and other technology development.
The acquisitions also raise the question of where, if anywhere, WAN belongs in the convergence trend. The change in ownership raises questions about how Fulcrum’s and Force10′s service provider networking products fit in. Ovum speculates about one possibility.
Dell completes data center lineup
Dell has steadily strengthened its offerings for enterprise customers, which increasingly means data centers. Dell is building global data centers to offer cloud services itself. Ethernet networking is the last hardware piece it needed to complete its data center portfolio. Aside from its PowerVault storage systems, it has iSCSI, NAS, and SAN via the EqualLogic, Exanet, and Compellent acquisitions, which occurred from 2008 to early 2011. Dell wants a credible data center solution – including the same operating system and management system across large and small switches – that it can get with a purely Force10 lineup, relegating its lower-speed PowerConnect products to campus LAN.
[The firm] stated it was attracted by Force10′s R&D team as well as its products. Force10 touts ultra-low latency and ultra-fast speeds, perhaps a surprising choice for Dell which targets the mid-market data center.
Ovum believes Dell will seek to compete through technology agility. In the server market, it occupies the classic third-place market attacker position behind HP and IBM, which have staked out the mass market and high-end respectively. Force10′s participation in high-performance markets will give Dell time-to-market advantage in the mainstream market as product attributes trickle down. Having just bought its way into 10GbE and 40GbE, Dell now says it may prioritize 100GbE development over 40GbE.
Intel seeks better control of networking timetable
At the silicon level, it is less clear why a data center solution needs to come from a single vendor. Intel, with overwhelming share in servers, frets that the network is holding back its processors. It seeks to accelerate adoption rates by promoting lower costs, e.g. for 10GbE with 10GBase-T. Intel points out that it can now lower the cost of its own switch silicon to a level that a pure switch vendor would find unsustainable.
Intel also points to new potential for nonstandard features implemented on both ends of the server-switch links to support emerging cloud computing needs. This could allow Intel to one-up NIC competitor Broadcom, which bought high-performance data center switch specialist Dune Networks in 2009.
Data center convergence with WAN still unclear but not impossible
Neither Dell nor Intel sees immediate synergy for the telecom service provider businesses of its acquisitions. The relationship between these adjacent communications markets has never lived up to hopes for synergies. Customers for data centers and WAN networking are separate even within cloud/telecom operators. Fulcrum chips reside on line cards and switch cards for carrier Ethernet and broadband access equipment – exactly the modular communications business Intel shed in 2007! Force10′s merger with carrier Ethernet vendor Turin Networks in 2009 was primarily a financial maneuver that left the two businesses running separately.
But cloud computing usage models do place greater demands on communications outside data centers. Capacity, security, and latency management requires awareness of the existence, capacity, and congestion of WAN links.
Ovum believes that Dell in particular might find a way to bring WAN networking technology into its data center solution, but it will take real commitment to be an innovation leader. Dell and Force10 – along with HP, IBM, et al. – are both active in the OpenFlow/software-defined networking community. One angle of OpenFlow that is just being explored is the possibility of more active virtualization management across the WAN by passing policies onto WAN switches.