School is out for summer, but it's time for IT executives to hit the books to prepare for a 2011 data centre refresh that delivers cost savings enabled by virtualisation and flatter architectures with lower latency.

Enterprises need to tap major data centre infrastructure vendors, not necessarily to choose one but to hear what they propose and determine how their proposals align with the needs of the company, says Tom Nolle, president of tech consulting firm CIMI Corp.

"The 2011 data centre refresh will be the most complicated thing ever attempted by enterprises," Nolle says. Reading specific proposals from data centre vendors is the best way for decision makers to educate themselves about the real architecture issues, he says. So far, education is lacking.

Based on CIMI surveys, general ignorance about data centre issues is high. Ideally, technology literacy should be identical whether a business has a related project underway or not, Nolle says. That way, potential customers are informed even if they have no immediate need for the technology.

But in the case of data centres, there is a 70% difference in literacy between those who have no ongoing data centre projects and those who do, he says. So businesses just beginning to plan data centre projects have a steep learning curve, especially if they plan to make a purchase near-term.

"That means you're flying by the seat of your pants, and the decision-making process will be stressful," Nolle says. "That's a tough position to be in when management is demanding success and ROI."

However, the urgency to make decisions may not be as great as Nolle projects, suggests Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with the Yankee Group. Redesigning and building virtualised data centres are major projects that warrant time spent choosing the right alternative. Mainstream adoption might not occur until 2012 or 2013, he says, giving more time for consideration while the technology matures. "It needs to be proven that it works, and that's a big leap of faith right now," he says.

One indicator of customer commitment to data centre upgrades is what they spend on data centre switches, says Matthias Machowinski, an analyst with Infonetics. Sales of data centre switches worldwide were $3.2 billion in 2009 and are projected to be $3.7 billion this year. The average growth from 2009 to 2014 is expected to be 10% per year.

That may not seem like extraordinary growth, but during the same time period, the price of 10Gbps ports are expected to drop, so total revenue growth registers a lower rate than growth in numbers of ports, Machowinski says. Infonetics projects 8 million 10Gbps ports will ship in 2010 and 14 million in 2014.

Regardless, the technology is complicated and vendor offerings are different enough to make decisions challenging. Kerravala says the choices vendors offer are more different vendor-to-vendor than they have been for past technologies. "It's unlike what networking has been for a long while - Cisco led and others were either cheaper or faster," he says.

Data centre differentiators

The latest player to articulate its data centre plans is Enterasys, which hangs its strategy on well-known partners, but anchors it on its own switches and the ability to manage based on preset policies.

This means it relies on interoperability with virtualisation software from vendors including Citrix, Microsoft and VMware, as well as server and storage vendors including Dell, HP and IBM. With input gathered from these other vendors, Enterasys will support visibility into data centre functions as well as set automated policies. These policies can allocate better access to priority applications as determined by business needs.

The plan was outlined this week and will be fleshed out over the coming months, including the specifics of the partnerships that will make it fly, the company says.

Key to the Enterasys architecture is the ability of its S-series switches to authenticate applications and apply policies to them regardless of the port they connect to. These policies can include factors such as QoS, bandwidth and access control.

Brocade's approach, called Brocade One, relies on a virtual access layer (VAL) that links typical data centre resources where they reside via software rather than via physical deployment and proximity. VAL imposes QoS policies. A second component is called virtual cluster switching (VCS), which enables managing the virtual switch as a single logical Ethernet multipath switch that is lossless and low-latency. The goal is to support IEEE standards for virtual bridging.

As virtual machine topologies form to meet demand, VCS makes sure that each VM gets the appropriate port profile regardless of where the VM is located.

Brocade hardware announced this month relies on a new operating system called Brocade Network OS (BNOS), which can converge fibre channel and IP onto a Linux core.

Meanwhile, Cisco, HP and Juniper all announced their strategies earlier, but each has its own variations. Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) creates a well-integrated environment of virtual servers, storage, applications and networking with some reliance on support from vendors including EMC, Microsoft, VMware and Novell.

UCS relies on a data centre fabric that can handle storage-area networks, network-attached storage and iSCSI, creating opportunities to save costs by reducing provisioning time, more efficient management and reduced power costs.

Cisco plans to sell UCS as a system, locking customers in to the vendor for more of their data centre infrastructure. That may not be as much of a concern as it has been in the past, Nolle says, based on recent surveys by his company. "Enterprises are less interested in best-of-breed than they used to be," he says. "They're more interested in having a single point of contact".

The reason for the mindset change is that despite black-box performance testing of individual devices, the performance differences in the real world are not noticeable, he says. The bigger draw for customers is if a vendor addresses high-level architectural issues effectively, he says.

Juniper has also been in the data centre game for a while and in February announced its Stratus project with other vendors to blend management, storage, computing, switching, networking and appliances. The company is focused on cutting latency tenfold, boosting reliability and beefing up virtual security.

HP, with its purchase of 3Com, has many of the elements needed to upgrade data centres, Kerravala notes. With its roots in Asian markets, the company can be expected to develop its own technologies rapidly as needed and at a low price, he says.

There are enough differences among the different strategies that no enterprise should just go along with its current data centre vendor's recommendations without looking around, Kerravala says.

In evaluating vendors, the major issues decision-makers should address include: How does cloud/virtualisation fit in? What are the effects on operational costs and support? How significant is real-time communications within the data centre? How compatible is the data centre with a multi-vendor environment?

"No vendor has all the elements - servers, networking gear, storage networking, storage, a virtualisation platform," Kerravala says. "No single vendor has that."