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An Open Cloud Environment

About 10 years ago, virtualization began to reshape the server and storage assets of large enterprises, lowering both capital and operational costs.

The CloudEthernetForum (CEF), which was launched in May 2013, is the organization driving this development. One of the Forum's primary goals is to advance technology standards, vendor interoperability and best design practices. That may not set ICT managers' pulse racing, but these initiatives will help businesses create a flexible and dynamic cloud infrastructure, and that would be a very significant development.

The cloud is expected to reshape the futures of many businesses for the next 10 or more years. Datacenters are consolidating. Fortune 500 businesses (e.g. Amazon, Boeing, Wal-Mart) are spending billions of dollars per year to consolidate smaller datacenters into large cloud infrastructures, allowing them to shed enormous IT operation costs. And software and hardware vendors are re-inventing themselves as players in this space (e.g. IBM, Microsoft, Oracle).

Realizing an open cloud environment will involve aligning several relatively new technologies, so it represents a complex task. These technologies include: Software Defined Networking (SDN), OpenFlow, OpenStack, and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). (SDN, OpenFlow and OpenStack were covered in two earlier articles: "SDN: More Than A Game Changer" and "SDN Spreads Its Wings And Starts To Fly.") Before looking at NFV, we should consider the pivotal role of Carrier Ethernet (CE) since this technology is the foundation on which a Cloud Ethernet infrastructure is built.

Carrier Ethernet
The Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) is the driving force behind CE. It has been developing, marketing and certifying standards for services since 2001 and there is close cooperation between this forum and the Cloud Ethernet Forum. For example, the Open Cloud project is a joint initiative of the two groups that will create an open test process for NFV, SDN and Carrier Ethernet applications.

CE has an impressive, 44 year history and it is the only game in town when it comes to high-speed, ultra-reliable data communications. It's the service of choice for many applications including enterprise business connectivity. The technology does not have an intrinsic speed limitation, other than the speed of light in the relevant medium. The current standard in most enterprise networks is 1GB, but 10 Gbps and 40 Gbps Ethernet switches are being deployed, and 400 Gbps is on the radar screen.

Performance figures are impressive, but CE is being challenged. Networks are transforming in order to accommodate mega-sized data center and cloud services. These centers are tightly packed with computing, communications and storage resources, needed to match the explosive growth in the amount of information (aka Big Data) that is available to consumers and business professionals. In turn CE needs to evolve in order to allow millions of virtual servers and storage devices to perform reliably and efficiently across both regional and global networks.

That is a key task of the CloudEthernetForum. The CEF aims to enable Ethernet as an end-to-end WAN technology that service providers can scale with visibility, specifically suited for use in connecting data centers. Ethernet technology is also widely employed inside the datacenters, but in a fundamentally different way. It is used to form a unified fabric, thereby providing a consistent protocol conversation when traffic leaves the center. As a result, Ethernet becomes the ultimate end-to-end networking product.

Network and functions virtualization
Network virtualization, as enabled by SDN, separates controller and forwarding tasks and leverages the capabilities of x86 systems servers, allowing services to scale based on the needs of the cloud service. This reduces the time-to-market for these applications and allows the introduction of a lower cost, usage-based business model. In addition, SDN technologies can improve the agility and programmability of Ethernet-based cloud services by providing a single controller that makes it easier to program networks.

Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), which is an SDN technology, relies upon, but differs from regular server virtualization as employed in enterprise IT. It decouples network functions from dedicated hardware appliances, thereby enabling them to perform the requisite functionality in software. It's a development that can consolidate and deliver the networking components needed to support a fully virtualized infrastructure. This means that enterprises can mirror their own network and security policies using a service chain of virtual firewalls, load balancers, and other network applications.

The networking industry is currently facing a series of inflection points. Advances across several disciplines are disrupting traditional network and business computing models. The cloud is reshaping the future of service providers and large enterprises, as did the Internet, VoIP and mobile devices in the past. The exponential growth in mobile and cloud applications are also creating new market dynamics.

Several enabling technologies are needed to increase the agility and lower the cost of cloud computing infrastructures. Therefore, consensus and a shared vision on cloud Ethernet architectures and technology priorities are needed, and the various players must unite on open standards, interoperability and easy deployment of cloud services. In a nutshell, that is the key objective of the CEF.

MEF's success in the delivery of Carrier Ethernet services involved aligning disparate perspectives around the goals of widespread interoperability and Ethernet service certification. That laid the groundwork for IT vendors and service providers to create a $50B Carrier Ethernet services market that is still growing. Time will tell if the CEF realizes its objective, but the price of failure is high. It would leave cloud communications stranded on the islands of an Old World infrastructure.

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