How to apply network virtualization to a wide area network (WAN)

How can you apply network virtualization technology to an enterprise wide area network (WAN)? Allocating bandwidth and improving network management and performance are just a sampling of what WAN managers can do better. In this primer, discover other benefits and learn how this technology can help your organization.

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There are many ways IT organizations can apply network virtualization technologies to a wide area network (WAN). This technology primer will focus on those that are changing the way WAN managers handle network traffic and deliver business-critical data to end users.

Using network virtualization to allocate WAN bandwidth

One key way WAN managers can apply network virtualization technologies is to create multiple virtual network "channels" on the same physical network. Many IT organizations are concerned not only with whether they are allocating enough bandwidth to each of their business-critical applications but with how applications on the same physical networks are affecting one another. Creating virtual channels and assigning each of these channels to individual applications enables organizations to ensure that each critical application can be seamlessly transferred across the network and ensure that new technology rollouts are not causing deterioration of existing business services. This strategy is somewhat similar to using Quality of Service (QoS) policies in networking hardware but is based on different technology mechanisms and allows organizations more control over network traffic, eliminating some of the shortfalls of traditional QoS tools.

Using network virtualization to merge networks for better performance, bandwidth and management

Organizations are also using network virtualization technology in a way that is quite unlike what was described above. Instead of creating many virtual network channels out of a single physical network, organizations can also virtualize multiple networks and turn them into a single "pipe." One of the applications of this type of technology is HP's Virtual Connect, which aggregates LAN and SAN connections to increase available bandwidth.

Organizations are also using multiple Internet service provider (ISP) connections for business continuity, disaster recovery and high availability purposes. The goal here is to ensure that if one of the connections goes down, organizations can conduct a seamless failover to other connections so that their enterprise WAN is always up and running. However, that leads to the underutilization of network infrastructure, as WAN links that are being used as a backup are being underutilized most of the time. For that reason, organizations are deploying technologies that would allow them to bond all network connections to a single virtual pipe. This allows them to increase available bandwidth that they have on hand while still achieving all of the benefits of redundant ISP connectivity.

Using this type of technology also allows organizations to deploy some less expensive, but also less reliable, network connections such as DSL and cable and still achieve high performance. This comes as a result of bonding these connections together, which helps to mitigate some of the performance risks that these types of connections bring to the enterprise. Technology vendors, such as Freedom Networks, FatPipe Networks and Talari Networks, are bringing different flavors of these types of technologies to the market.

In conclusion: How network virtualization helps the WAN

Whether organizations are segmenting a single physical network into multiple virtual networks or combining multiple physical connections into a single virtual pipe, the goal that they are trying to achieve is the same: to get the most out of their infrastructure. In addition, virtualizing network connections enables organizations to improve the speed and availability of business services that are being transferred across the network and make their existing infrastructure easier to manage.

The need to improve resource utilization and management flexibility is the top driver for organizations to virtualize their servers, storage, desktops or applications. However, WAN managers have the same goals and are finding network virtualization technologies to be very effective in addressing these needs. Network virtualization technologies are changing the way enterprise WAN infrastructures are being managed, and organizations are expecting to achieve similar business benefits from both virtual machines and virtual network connections.

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This was first published in August 2010

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