Survey says: Data center network-improvement activity ongoing

In September CommScope (www.commscope.com) released details of a survey it conducted among 730 information-technology professionals from 54 countries.

In September CommScope (www.commscope.com) released details of a survey it conducted among 730 information-technology professionals from 54 countries. Those surveyed have responsibility for their organizations’ data centers, and the survey asked about the participants’ priorities, actions, and plans to adopt new technologies and techniques.

CommScope issued the report entitled “Innovating in a Time of Change: Investment and Technical Trends in the Data Center” along with the company’s partners in this survey, fellow data center solution providers Eaton Corp. (www.eaton.com), Intel Corp. (www.intel.com), and Brocade (www.brocade.com).

While those organizations co-sponsored the survey, its central focus was to determine participants’ approaches to their data centers’ physical layers. “Generally speaking the survey questions were geared toward cabling,” explains George Brooks, data center business unit leader for CommScope. “It was not geared so much toward equipment deployment, but rather toward laying the foundation to be able to support” that equipment, he explains.

For example, globally, 21% of participants said they already had deployed 10GBase-T (10-Gbit/sec Ethernet over twisted-pair cabling) in their data center’s horizontal. With very little 10GBase-T switch gear available on the market, that 21% figure indicates the percentage who have installed cabling infrastructure that will support 10GBase-T equipment. Herein, references to the deployment of a specific protocol will mean the cabling systems designed to support that protocol.

From a big-picture standpoint, the survey inquired about the types of projects currently being funded—a potentially insightful question given the globe’s economic state. Nearly a third, 32% in all, said their organization was building or planning to build new data center facilities. In the Europe/Middle East/Africa (EMEA) region, 40% said they had new data-center-build projects. On the other end of the scale, only 22% of those in the Central and Latin America (CALA) region reported such projects.

The report also inquired about projects underway, including improvement projects. The types of projects currently underway include server consolidation (cited by 37% of respondents), implementing virtualization (39%), improving data center security (37%), ensuring business continuity (41%), and enhancing backup and recovery (37%).

Virtualization is especially popular in EMEA, where 53% of those surveyed are investing in this activity. In CALA, the figure is 27%. In the North American region, 38% of respondents have virtualization projects and in Asia Pacific the figure is 39%.

The report noted that globally, 65% of respondents said they had to cost-justify projects with a specific return on investment, internal rate of return, or payback period in order to get funding approved for their projects.

High density and high performance

The survey then turned to high-density deployments and the high-performance cabling structures needed to support them. One question asked respondents the drivers that are leading them to high-density deployments, if in fact they are moving to higher density. Eight-five percent said yes, they are increasing density. The reasons for the migration, in order of popularity, are: to save rack space (50%), to lower costs (47%), to lower energy consumption (45%), to save floor space (39%), and cable management (38%).

Overall, participants appeared to acknowledge that such high-density deployments will require high-performance cabling systems. One question asked of every participant, regardless of whether or not they were moving to higher-density deployments or had any other projects specifically planned, inquired about the types of cabling media they would deploy to support their data center in the event of a new installation.

From CommScope’s report: “For new copper cabling installations, more than half of all respondents (54%) said they would use 10-Gbit/sec Category 6A/Class EA cabling. In CALA, the figure rose to 78%.

“For new fiber installations, 50% said they would use laser-optimized multimode fiber conforming to the OM3 or OM4 standards. The figure in CALA was 61%.”

Digging a little deeper into the aforementioned question and responses about 10GBase-T deployment, the survey included two questions on the protocol and cabling to support it. While 21% indicated they are already running 10GBase-T in their horizontal connections, an additional 48% said they intend to do so within three years. The other question asked about 10GBase-T in the data center backbone. Again from the report: “Globally, 30% have already done so for backbone connections, and a further 46% said they would do so within three years. The highest figures were in CALA; 86% in the region said they had adopted 10GBase-T in the backbone or would do so within three years.”

Backbones and horizontals

CommScope’s Brooks further explains the similarities between data centers and commercial-building-style cabling topologies when it comes to backbones and horizontals. “From a cabling standpoint, you can view the backbone and horizontal just as you do in an enterprise LAN,” he says. “In terms of physical connectivity, in a building LAN you’d have a main distribution area and run a backbone up to multiple floors, usually using fiber. From there the cabling goes horizontally, generally over Category 5e or 6 copper.

“When you get into a data center it’s somewhat analogous. The backbone is a core-switch-to-core-switch connection. A data center can contain core switches, aggregation switches, and access-layer switches, in that order. In a small data center one might go from core to access, then to servers. In a large data center, the architecture is core, aggregation, access. The aggregation switch does just what its name indicates; it aggregates many server connections back to a switch. In a mega-data-center with a lot of access-layer switches, the manager may want to aggregate them before going back to the core.

“But typically in a data center, the backbone is core-switch-to-core-switch. The horizontal is core-switch-to-aggregation, or core-switch-to-access. It’s no different than a building cabling system in that regard. But in a data center you may have a larger pipe. The user might have gigabit speeds out to the server, aggregate those, and have a fiber or copper pipe going back to the core switch with 10-gig speeds.”

Quality and reliability

In its report, CommScope noted that responses to questions on selection of network topologies and equipment reflect the importance attached to infrastructure quality, reliability, and performance. When questioned, 62% of respondents put performance among their top two priorities.

Among regions of the world, North America had the highest sensitivity to price, with 57% putting it in their top two priorities; price-sensitivity ranked lowest in EMEA, with 46% putting it in their two top priorities. However, 70% of North American respondents put performance among their top two priorities, compared with 64% in EMEA.

CommScope says the higher priority given to performance over price was confirmed by a question on the factors influencing choice of data center infrastructure equipment. Quality of product was cited by 82% of all respondents as a factor, and performance by 69%. The responses across the world’s regions were generally consistent, except for CALA, where 90% cited product quality as a factor and 59% cited technical performance.

Following are the responses, rank-ordered by percentage of respondents, to the question: What factors influence your purchase decision for data center infrastructure (servers, switches, UPS, cabling, services, etc.)? Quality of product, 82%; technical performance, 69%; price, 59%; product/brand reputation, 58%; warranty/guarantee, 53%; total solution offering, 48%; speed of delivery, 26%; flexibility in delivery schedules, 18%; recommendation of consultant, 17%.

A bit of good news for the sometimes-downtrodden cabling infrastructure came in the form of a question about recent causes of data center operations interruption. Despite claims that we in the cabling industry sometimes hear about cabling causing some percentage of network downtime that is disproportionate to its percentage of overall network cost, results from the CommScope survey suggest cabling is a minor, not major, contributor to network downtime. The question asked was, “What factors have contributed to interruptions in your data center operations in the past 24 months?” The responses, again rank-ordered according to survey responses, are: Utility power failure (54%), failure of backup power equipment such as a UPS, generator, or PDU (33%); human operator error (23%); cooling equipment failure (22%); IT equipment failure (21%); network equipment failure (17%); data cabling infrastructure (9%); fire/smoke (6%); water (5%); natural disaster (5%); electrostatic discharge (4%).

In its report, CommScope made several conclusions based on the data obtained. Among those conclusions were that organizations across all sectors and regions are willing to fund improvements of their data center infrastructures. These organizations clearly recognize the key role of data centers in driving business performance, and that recognition is overcoming constraints imposed by current economic conditions.

The end of the study included commentary from CommScope on the survey’s findings. The company stated, “When selecting passive components such as cabling, there is no excuse for under-specifying that results in premature replacement. Ripping out cabling that is only a few years old will not only damage an organization’s budget; it can seriously harm its green credentials.”

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