Give the cloud some backbone

Telecom Asia special projects team
05 Nov 2015

The telecoms sector is undergoing a seismic paradigm shift as the internet takes center stage in the lives of more and more people - and things, for that matter. Smartphones and tablets have changed the way we communicate with each other, but the current spike in internet data growth isn’t being driven just by smartphones - it’s also being driven by connected cars, TVs, sensors, signage, home appliances, wearables and more.

Consequently, more and more consumers are demanding instant access to content anywhere, anytime, from any device - and operators are working overtime to give it to them.
When we talk about this paradigm shift in telecoms circles, a lot of the focus is naturally on the network (from the access link to the core) and the devices themselves. But there’s another crucial element that’s arguably the more important one - the data center.

This massive proliferation of content requires data centers - lots of them. Data centers, after all, are where “the cloud” exists, and the cloud is where more and more content is going to reside - especially in the context of data caching that pushes content as close to end users as possible for optimum performance. As a result, the number of data centers is on the rise. According to Ovum and IDC, Asia is emerging as one of the largest and fastest growing market for new data centers.

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Meanwhile, a recent study from Ovum says there are over 2,200 data centers in the top 20 cities across the globe, with seven cities currently have more than 100 data centers within their metropolitan areas.

The significance of those numbers cannot be overstated. Traditionally, data centers have been massive server farms located in remote areas with cheap access to land and power, close proximity to fiber routes, and (hopefully) low tax rates. But now, as the Ovum report indicates, we’re seeing more and more data centers located in metro areas with the goal of providing a better user experience via low latency and localized content delivery, which translates to better app performance.

In order for those metro data centers to achieve that goal, they have to be interconnected. Indeed, as data centers become central to the next era of telecoms, data center interconnect (DCI) is a crucial step in providing the backbone the cloud requires to do what it needs to do. Which sounds obvious, but when you sit down and actually look at what’s required, it’s immediately clear that there’s far more to DCI than hooking up a fiber cable on either end.

Data center evolution

To best understand how to approach DCI for the cloud era, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at where data centers are now, and how they’re interconnected today, says Karl Horne, CTO of Asia-Pacific at Ciena.

“Typical data centers house three different sets of equipment, starting with compute appliances, or servers,” he explains. “Fast compute platforms are needed by apps to process data, such as navigation applications calculating the quickest route between two end-points. These compute platforms can also run cloud-based applications such as data processing, billing, and CRM.”

Then there’s storage equipment - high-capacity disk arrays that process data saved or accessed by applications, such as emails, online photos, and videos. Storage arrays are also used to back up enterprise data (i.e. data duplication or mirroring) to protect the enterprise information assets from natural disasters or data corruption. And lastly there’s network or telecom equipment, which is used to route traffic within data centers, between servers, and storage arrays. Other telecom equipment connects the data center to the outside world.

With that in mind, Horne says, the objective of connecting data centers is to enable the compute and storage functions to serve the apps.

“Traditionally, data center connectivity comes through a combination of connecting grey-optics output of individual equipment over individual dark-fiber strands, or via aggregation with low-capacity legacy DWDM platforms,” Horne explains. “However, both of these methods are inadequate for the exponential growth of data center applications. Without adequate connectivity, there is no app, since the network increasingly sits between end users and their content! Data centers underpin the cloud. The cloud is only as good as the network that interconnects the data centers.”

In addition, he says, the rise of virtualization is affecting the practical functions of the traditional data center. “With today’s technologies, two or more physical data centers can act as a single logical data center, sharing the load and dividing tasks to minimize operating expenses and maximize performance. For example, two relatively close data centers in a large city, where real estate is at a premium, can act as one virtual data center, eliminating the need to build new facilities.”

With most data centers undergoing a major overhaul to be able to support today’s shifting traffic patterns, bandwidth increases, and apps proliferation, DCI has become a key enabler to ensure successful implementation of upper-layer applications, Horne says. “DCI is at the heart of cloud networking. It mandates high scalability, efficiency, reliability, and security to ensure quick access to content across the cloud’s building blocks.”

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