One thing is certain in 2006: You'll run out of both time and budget money before you'll run out of new technology to try for your corporate network.
At the highest levels, we see a rapid mainstreaming of technology initially developed for clustered, supercomputing environments being targeted for corporate data centre deployment. Although in the past those environments were treated differently, some vendors believe the convergence on Ethernet as a transport for everything -- especially storage, with its high-volume and low-latency requirements -- combined with more powerful general-purpose corporate servers is going to reveal bottlenecks that today's gear won't remove.
A good indicator is the revival of interest in high-performance network interface cards (NIC) and their corresponding operating system drivers. For most of the 1990s users were not content with the standard drivers provided by Microsoft and the basic commodity LAN adapters. A niche industry grew up around companies that would turbocharge network throughput with their high-performance -- and higher-priced -- NICs.
As systems were sold with preinstalled NICs, interest in swapping out cards waned. Even users in the server market came to accept whatever NIC the unit came with -- especially when it was integrated into the motherboard.
Performance was apparently good enough. Vendors now are showing that investing in custom NICs can dramatically improve throughput in high-end server systems.
It follows that high-performance endpoints will require a high-capacity infrastructure -- which brings us to 10G Ethernet. Our first tests were in 2004, but it appears that 2006 could be a watershed for the technology.
Targeted originally to the supercomputer environment, it has been successfully deployed as a powerful stacking technology for a new generation of stackable Gigabit switches that, by virtue of their stacking technology, offer "fabric" capacity that we see in chassis-based switches.
Still, the cost of 10G Ethernet links has been high enough to limit its deployment. Indications are that in 2006, the price of 10G Ethernet switches will dramatically fall.
As you look at new switches, most certainly you'll be offered integrated Power over Ethernet (PoE). It is an important feature given the VOIP phones, wireless LAN (WLAN) access points and IP video cameras that need both power and an Ethernet connection. Test your specific needs, as all PoE support is not the same.
You'll also find some infrastructure devices, such as load balancers, which were previously priced out of the range of many companies but are now available at lower cost and with sufficient power to make this technology a resource for more networks.
Kevin Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Florida.