Now that HP has the 3Com H3C switch technology in house, it's got the goods for helping enterprises flatten their data centre network architectures.

But, industry watchers say, it hasn't quite been able to deliver yet. "For HP being the juggernaut it is, it hasn't really offered a clear enough vision," says Andre Kindness, senior analyst for enterprise networking at Forrester Research. "It wants to commoditise the data centre, battling against Cisco's Unified Computing System with its Virtual Connect [edge virtualisation technology], for example, but it does still seem to be struggling to combine the pieces."

When it comes to the flat network, one of those pieces is the switch virtualisation technology it picked up with the April acquisition of 3Com. That technology, called Intelligent Resilient Framework (IRF), is the "cornerstone of [intellectual property] we considered when we decided to acquire 3Com," says Lin Nease, director of advanced technology for HP Networking's Advanced Technology Group.

With IRF, HP can combine its newly acquired A12500 series data centre core switches (formerly the 3Com H3C 12500s), for control as one big virtual switch. "Doing so lets you get many thousands of 10G-connected servers in single Layer 2 domain, cost effectively, as well as with a very high availability and fast recovery time," Nease says.

IRF boasts a maturity that isn't found elsewhere, Nease adds, since it dates back to the 3Com stacking solutions of the 1990s, but has been refined several times over the years. HP also benefits from the earlier 3Com-Huawei Technologies joint partnership, which resulted in modern merchant silicon for use in 3Com's H3C data centre switches. "Using the latest and greatest in ASIC means low latency across the switches, which is critical when flattening the network," says Nease, citing a 50-msec recovery service-level agreement HP offers A-Series switch customers.

In today's highly virtualised data centres, "my racks may be hundreds of metres apart, but I need to be able to provision servers to be part of the same cluster and to communicate with one another with very low latency, as if they were in the same rack. And that's what we can do when we use IRF on our very large core switches," Nease says. "Now you don't have to care where your servers are physically located."

Also, while IRF enables connectivity from the server edge to the core, HP can preserve the Layer 3 and up network segmentation for traditional connectivity, like MPLS or VPLS, to the outside world. "This gives us complete flexibility," Nease says.

Flattening the network has value, but Layer 3 and routing are still relevant, agrees Jorge Mata, CIO for the Los Angeles Community Colleges District (LACCD).

Management, too, is a critical decision point. "Some technologies that flatten the network also consolidate management; these are very interesting to us," Mata says. "We can have a whole set of boxes, but from the management standpoint we only see one. Therefore, we have one topology and can scale with industry standard connections as the need arrives."

With HP, that type of management comes via the Intelligent Management Console (IMC), a multi-vendor management platform gained in the 3Com acquisition. "Not only can enterprises use IMC to manage their new switches but also existing infrastructure," says Jay Mellman, director of product marketing with HP Networking. "IMC can be a migration tool, too."

Waiting for HP to align its flat network vision with its convergence strategy, called FlexFabric, could be worth the wait for LACCD. "I have a great team … but anytime I can partner with an organization [like HP] that provides end-to-end services capability, it heavily reduces the risk to my organisation," Mata says. "It also accelerates the deployment of services and applications to the infrastructure – which is good for the business."

Indeed, HP does bring one big unmatched asset to the table for enterprises looking for help flattening the data centre network architecture – its services organisation. "We're not simply offering technology, but backing that up with support and services," Mellman says. "We're in the business of helping customers take advantage of this technology to accomplish their goals, those goals being 'how do I deliver the best applications and business services?' And, 'How do I do that flexibly?'"

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