Agility and efficiency through virtual switching

As more businesses rely on virtualization, they are inevitably called on to handle requests that fall within the bailiwick of network infrastructure.

This underlies the evolving importance of network virtualization, in particular virtual switching, said Dave Steeves, CEO of Steeves and Associates. The Vancouver-based Microsoft Cloud Accelerated Partner said that while network virtualization is still an emerging technology area, it is the natural next step in driving efficiency though virtualization.

“In general the push for network virtualization all ties back to the needs for companies to be more agile and efficient to be competitive—the same drivers as server virtualization and public and hybrid cloud,” Steeves said.

“We’ve seen the flexibility that comes from server virtualization, but we still kind of kept managing the network the way we always have. Think about it: when guest OSs in the same physical host are talking with each other, it makes sense to do it all in that physical host, not to, for example, travel out through a physical NIC (network interface card) to a physical switch and back.”

If switching is done virtually within the same physical host, Steeves pointed out, it requires less hardware, but can also clean up the complexity of the wiring closet. Put simply: servers need fewer NICs, and switch port complexity is reduced.

He lauds the “baked-in” network virtualization capabilities in Windows Server 2012, which offers the Hyper-V Extensible Switch, a software-based Layer 2 switch that runs in the management ope-rating system of the Hyper-V parent partition. The software allows packets to be routed between one or more Hyper-V child partitions—those without access to hardware—and physical servers. It can use extensions (or plug-ins) developed by the business, partners or third-party vendors to add functionality. The virtual switch also provides policy enforcement for security, isolation, and service levels, Steeves noted.

Virtual switching introduces benefits in portability and management. For example, ports on a physical switch would historically be configured to recognize the physical server, not the virtual machine running on it. Move that server, and the port would need to be reconfigured. That creates complexity, and rela-ted cost, for organizations, Steeves said.

“You have these workloads, and different guest OSs in your own virtualized environment, and you need to maintain your environment as you move stuff around. Those issues of network addressing are an area of serious complexity in a virtualized environment.

“The Hyper-V switch in Windows Server 2012 lets you make those moves without having to redo everything. It gives portability and allows for automation.”

The complexity is perhaps most intense in a multi-tenant environment, such as a managed service provider, Steeves suggested, an area where the benefits of network virtualization can be quickly seen both by the provider and customer. Virtual networking affords better isolation of clients, and so better security. For example, where before a hosting provider would require dedicated individual NICs to separate client traffic, with Windows Server 2012 this can be now be done at the virtual layer.

Importantly, extracting network management to the virtual layer can help eliminate human error. “If you have to make a lot of changes in the network to support virtual workloads, there’s a lot more opportunity to make a mistake,” Steeves explained.

The virtual networking capabilities of Windows Server 2012 are managed with Microsoft System Center 2012 management tools, allowing busines-ses to manage their virtual network, multi-server vir-tualized environment, and public and private clouds all under a single pane of glass.

With Windows Server 2012 and Microsoft System Center 2012 support for Hyper-V, businesses can fully automate management tasks, which can help reduce the administrative overhead costs of their environments. “Now that it’s in the box, you have the same consistent management console and tools; it’s just a seamless part of the infrastructure.”

In addition, he pointed to the efficiency gains from being able to leverage Active Directory to create roles-based access and partition different management domains.

For Steeves, adding virtual switch capabilities to Windows 2012 is another example of how Microsoft pays attention to the market and brings native sup-port and management capabilities to emerging tech-nologies, ultimately making them (and their benefits) ubiquitous through “massive” economies of scale.

It’s the reason he became a Microsoft partner nearly 20 years ago.

“Microsoft continues to innovate on top of their platform. It is the same pattern as 20 years ago, when clients used to buy memory managers for PCs,” he said. “Microsoft saw the need and added it as part of their platform, just like they have with virtual networking.

“Increased functionality in the platform reduces costs from third-party tools. It’s an example of the benefit of economies of scale Microsoft brings.”