While enterprise networking and data center networking aren’t exactly competitors, some IT administrators are unfamiliar with the difference between the two. A recent survey of both public- and private-sector IT managers found that while they generally were able to define data center networking, enterprise networking proved more difficult to define. Indeed, some IT managers incorrectly identified points of overlap between data center networking and enterprise networking, suggesting a refresher may be helpful for decision-makers at a wealth of IT companies. This article attempts to shed some light on the differences and similarities between these two types of networking.
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It makes sense to start with data center networking, since that type is the one that IT administrators found it easier to define. As the administrators correctly identified, data center networking involves the convergence of various networking resources in a data center or server room. These resources could be as simple as routers and switches, or more high-level pieces such as SDN controllers. Data center network traffic needs to be high bandwidth and and low latency, to an ever greater extent than for regular enterprise networks. According to Rick Frothingham, a systems engineer at Cisco, this shows up in the switches that are made specifically for data center networks (such as the Cisco Nexus switches). One of Cisco’s competitors in this field is Brocade, whose VDX line of switches is also designed specifically for data centers. As Senthil Sankarappan, director of product management for Brocade, mentioned in a recent article, “Data center networking is all about more density, more bandwidth.” The result of this focus is that the architecture of data center networking is less hierarchical than the architecture of most enterprise networks.
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Another focus of data center networks is the provisioning of new resources, which needs to happen quickly. This is much less of a problem in enterprise networking, where the concern is placed more on making sure users can connect with existing corporate resources. On a lower level, this means that data center network uses programmable switches far more frequently, because those switches allow for automated provisioning. As Cisco’s Frothingham notes, “You could get to a point where every enterprise switch is programmable, but what does that get you? Nothing. It doesn’t impact the end user experience at all. Whereas it makes a huge difference in the data center, in terms of managing resources efficiently.”
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So what are some ways that enterprise and data center networking are similar? Respondents to the survey pointed to a similar set of products – such as cables, switches, and firewalls – but even here there are some differences, such as the switches made specifically for data centers (or vice versa). Perhaps the biggest similarity involves the use of software-defined networking in both network types. In both cases – though this is particularly true for the data center – virtualization is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
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But beyond virtualization, the two types of networking mostly seem to accomplish their specific goals in different ways. This was demonstrated earlier regarding architecture and traffic patterns, but is also true for security interests. Usually, an enterprise network controls corporate resources that are provisioned to end users via an access management solution. Often, these networks use the 802.1X standard to attempt to control which publicly available ports are being used by the client. Data center networks are usually less concerned with specific connections to a corporate network, and more concerned with keeping out malicious users entirely. Here, the emphasis is placed more on identification of malicious traffic than on restricting it up front.