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What is the edge, how is it changing and how can you make the most of it?

Mon 14 Mar 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

In part one of this series we discussed how the next major meta trend in networking will cause global change. Part two took a closer look at changes in the data centre. Part three of this series delves into the edge and looks at how it is changing.

The edge isn’t always a physical place anymore as much as a set of activities... it’s where the user interfaces and interacts with an application. The application lives in the cloud or in the data centre. The user can be anywhere they want to be, and the edge moves with the user.

So instead of thinking about the edge in physical terms, let’s first think about what we need to do at this interface. As a user interacts with data or an application, you need to apply the services and policies that control the interaction. And the actions will vary based on who you are, where you are, and what rights you have. Based on the answers, we can apply policies that are expressed through network services, like routing, firewall, QOS and so forth. 

You can virtualise just about any service, so where this wrapper of policy occurs can be anyplace, just like the application. The edge is wherever this is happening. We might push policies to any device with compute capability, or with access to it. So for mobile devices, you don’t need a physical edge. And this is where virtual edge software and services fit into the picture, often called vCE (virtual consumer edge). A first step in this direction doesn’t require a full vCE architecture. You can start with vCPE. For example, replace your stack of equipment, such as physical routers, firewalls, and/or load balancers, with a suite of software that includes routing, VPN, firewall, NAT and other services. You can load it onto an existing server at any site and manage it remotely. 

But you still have places in your network that are the classic edge, with a physical router or switch that embodies and delivers these network services. And there will always be places where there is value in having a physical expression of the edge. Can you get the value of virtualisation, but in the physical network edge?

The classic edge is changing

Traditionally, to provide services at the physical edge, we would stack up edge switches, and each one needed to have all the services you needed at that location. The need for homogeneity among the switches means you spend a lot more money than you should, which may make your vendor happy but isn’t delivering value to your users. 

So a step towards the new edge is a hyper edge architecture, which allows you to mix and match low cost, low performance switches with higher cost feature reach switches. You can get the benefits of virtualisation, in that you can imbue the whole bundle with the full set of capabilities, just by having that capability on one of the devices. Instead of the stack being defined by its least common denominator, it’s now defined by its most feature-rich member.  

Be SDN Ready and start the journey

Or as a really easy first step, just make sure your edge device is SDN ready and able to be managed by openflow and your SDN controller. Even if you don’t use the programmability today, it will be there for you in the future. You need an edge device that supports SDN protocols like OpenFlow and WXLan, and management protocols like sFlow. You can use this capability to programmatically control your physical edge. It’s like SDN on training wheels. You can experiment with SDN protocols without having to change your entire network configuration. 

The point is, there are many ways to get started on your journey to the New IP, and to start getting value today. The New IP is a modern network, built on your time, and your terms.

 To find out more about the New IP, click here.

Article by Gary Denman, Brocade regional director for Australia and New Zealand

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