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Five tips for more effective data center network management

To effectively manage a data center network, IT teams need to start with a smart topology, brush up on the latest standards and weigh the impact of technologies like SDN.

Data center network management is a multi-pronged process, starting with a topology that allows room for growth. From there, administrators can make a push toward more advanced networking features, including software-defined networking, but also need to carefully consider the types of cables they use, emerging networking standards and more.

To get a feel for the latest trends and best practices for data center network management, here's a look back at five of SearchDataCenter's top networking tips in 2016.

Develop a manageable network diagram

Diagram development and maintenance aren't new ways to streamline data center network management, but are ones that IT often despises. Both physical and logical network diagrams are often tedious to create and even harder to update. A physical diagram should depict hardware connectivity, including the location of distribution switches and equipment cabling. A logical diagram outlines the flow of data through the network, which provides more in-depth information compared to the physical diagram. Decide whether one of these diagrams, or a mix of both, would best meet your needs.

After you create the diagrams, determine the best way to update them regularly when changes occur. There are tools that can create and update network diagrams, but they often use device discovery to build the network map and determine traffic flow, which isn't always a flawless plan.

To minimize time spent on creating and maintaining diagrams, narrow the scope of your diagram. This will prevent you from having to update diagrams due to a single network change.

Consider leaf-spine architectures for new data flows

New technologies, such as hyper-converged infrastructure, cause data to flow in an east-to-west movement, rather than the more traditional north-to-south pattern. This can create bottlenecks as data passes through the network.

Leaf-spine architecture is a network topology that can handle the uptick in multi-directional data flow and help IT address these bottlenecks. Leaf switches consolidate user traffic before passing to the "spine," which is core storage systems and servers.

Leaf-spine also helps with the logical networking of a data center, as information is shared more directly and efficiently between devices.

Leaf-spine architectures also flatten the network from three tiers to two, reducing the number of switches and cable runs. Leaf-spine switches, however, have multiple connections to the core compared to a single connector.

Leaf-spine also helps with the logical networking of a data center, as information is shared more directly and efficiently between devices. Update your network topology to include leaf-spine architecture to pave the way toward software-defined networks (SDN).

Evaluate fiber optic cables

Consolidation and other IT trends often stress the limits of cable capacities on the network. And fiber optic cables, rather than copper, help IT achieve the necessary high-speed connections.

Data center teams might be familiar with fiber optic cables if they've needed to cable a link over 330 feet -- the maximum length that a copper wire can reach. Fiber optic cables with an SX-based optic, which are common in small form-factor pluggable (SFP) formats, can support ranges of roughly 700 feet. The SFP model is a standard for 1 GbE, but SFP+ modules allow for 10 GbE in the same form factor.

As long as a switch supports SFP+ formats, it will most likely also support SFP modules.

Fiber optic cables are evolving with the use of Digital Diagnostic Monitoring (DDM). IT teams can troubleshoot link and switch issues with DDM, as information passes through the cables. However, as organizations require more bandwidth, future fiber optic cable adjustments will be necessary.

Understand the latest IEEE networking standards

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers approved four new network standards in 2016 for 802.3 Ethernet, with 802.3bq and 802.3by being the most significant. These two standards focus on the push toward 25 GbE accommodations in the data center.

The 802.3bq standard highlights the data center network management and physical layers required for 25 Gbps and 40 Gbps, while 802.3by explains the media access control parameters for 25 Gbps. Together, these standards help define protocols for the development of interoperable 25 GbE devices.

For data center admins, the move to 25 GbE, will mean lower costs, but will also require new network hardware capable of handling these speeds. Confirm that data center switches, network interface cards, cables and other equipment can handle 25 GbE.

After you meet hardware, software and cable requirements, identify how to manage workloads on the 25 GbE network. Administrators will need to rethink how they provision resources to take advantage of the faster bandwidth.

Increase efficiency with software-defined technologies

Flexibility, efficiency and resiliency are the key end results for administrators, which makes software-defined applications and SDN especially attractive for data center network management.

Software-defined applications use infrastructure management and automation software to manage and define multiple areas of the network. Applications can grow and shrink over time to meet demand, and use horizontal scaling instead of vertical scaling to delegate tasks based on resources and demand.

Software-defined architectures typically use two sets of APIs -- inner ones that drive and organize internal systems, and outer ones that are geared toward long-distance operation of the network. The two sets will prevent changes at the end-user level from affecting the data center and vice versa.

Next Steps

Be aware of network bottlenecks after storage improvements

How to make the software-defined network happen now

Can 25 GbE solve data center oversubscription?

Dig Deeper on SDN and other network strategies