Virtualization Technology News and Information
Why Scaling Out Your Network Infrastructure Saves Costs and Headaches In The Long Run

Written by Alastair Hartrup, CEO of Network Critical

With the rapid pace of adoption for disruptive technologies, businesses are having a difficult time adjusting their network infrastructure to keep up with constantly increasing performance demands. Technology initiatives like IoT, edge computing and software-defined networking are altering already-complex network architecture requirements, creating a host of problems for IT departments scrambling to keep up.

Among these issues is the traditional method of "scaling up" network infrastructure each time growing capacity requirements necessitate upgrades. While this has been the go-to method in the past, it is no longer the best option given the rapid speed of network transformation. Instead, being able to quickly add ports and adapt to changing speeds or capabilities with a "scale out" architecture proves to be a simpler, less cost-intensive approach in the long run.

Below we will explore the differences between scale out and scale up approaches to changing network hardware, features and management requirements, highlighting the benefits that scale-out visibility can provide.


When it comes to network packet brokers, the scale up approach for hardware often means buying a big box solution with tons of ports. Those ports get used as needed, while many sit idle for "future use" - a simple but wasteful growth solution. With networks growing at a faster rate than budgets these days, investing in idle assets is often sub-optimal.

The other scale up approach is to purchase the unit that strictly matches today's needs, and then when required, decommission the existing unit and buy the next model up. Vendors like to promote the "product family" idea - for example, if you purchase the X-1 now, you can later purchase the X-2, X-3, X-4 when you need more ports or power. This family scaling certainly can keep the customer loyal to a vendor by providing a simple upgrade path with familiar operation and management. However, it's also wasteful as the smaller product is usually replaced well before the end of its useful life.

For many organizations, a better approach is to scale out by buying a smaller base unit that meets immediate needs and building incrementally with growth. This includes purchasing a base unit suitable for initial requirements, then transparently adding on to the initial purchase as required with modules that easily integrate and can leverage the intelligence of the mothership unit. This approach protects budget-disciplined teams while still providing a path for seamless growth. The IT stakeholder no longer has to pay for something it might use in the future.


Scale up versus scale out doesn't just apply to hardware investments, it also has an impact on product features. Scale up promotes buying the feature set you think you need now, then adding "feature modules" and licenses as you discover additional requirements are needed. Unfortunately, monitoring and security tools connected to links through a Packet broker don't always keep pace with the speeds of the newly installed links, which can require upgrading the feature set of the Packet Broker to mitigate these issues.

When it comes to Packet Brokers, features such as port mapping and basic filtering are standard. Advanced features such as packet slicing, packet manipulation and various methods of load balancing are often offered as discreet modules or annual licenses. Vendors, therefore, offer options to add on advanced features by offering firmware modules and software licenses. This scale up approach allows the customer to keep initial CAPEX low by adding on advanced features later as network complexity grows. While this maintains a constant revenue and loyalty stream for vendors, it can have the customer paying a lifetime of license fees for a one-time purchase. It may be helpful with CAPEX but, overtime, can put a strain on OPEX as ongoing fees pile up.

The scale out approach tackles this problem by already including advanced features in the core product. Packet brokers built around the scale out principle have load balancing to help spread incoming traffic as new, faster links are added, as well as packet manipulation to help organizations deal with new privacy rules (such as GDPR) that require packet data payloads to be masked. They also offer packet slicing to help increase the performance of monitoring and security tools. When needed, these sorts of advanced features can be leveraged at will- no additional modules, no on-going licensing fees. 


If you're responsible for planning, writing, testing and deploying a new set of filter rules and port maps for an entire network system at each growth phase, you understand the massive amount of work it requires, and the challenges associated with the scale up approach. Writing filter maps so the right information is passed to the right tool can be a very complex operation with hierarchical filtering systems. Furthermore, assigning ports to links and tools can also be time consuming and error prone. While most vendors have the same operation and management systems which are used when new units are deployed and decommissioned, it still requires a tremendous amount of time to transition from one model to the next. The net result: any sort of change often hurts when the underlying hardware is swapped out.

Packet brokers that scale out eliminate the need to swap hardware, which can have a monumental impact on NetOps. Add and deploy new filter rules and port maps as needed, with no impact on existing rules and system operations. Simply by adding a hardware extension module to the existing system, network managers only need to map and apply filters to the new links. And these scale out solutions often have management software that automates provisioning by leveraging sophisticated computational engines that do the hard math in the background. Filter rules become independent rather than hierarchical. This added software saves time, money, and makes incremental changes easy.

Given the rising complexity of today's networks, packet brokers have become even more vital to businesses, providing the comprehensive network visibility IT teams need to effectively identify issues, recognize security issues and ensure overall performance. When new technology initiatives spur network infrastructure upgrades, adaptable scale out architectures simplify this historically painful process and allow the network to continue operations with negligible disruption to business operations and budgets.


About the Author


Alastair Hartrup is the CEO and founder of Network Critical, a company that provides industry-leading network TAPs and Packet Broker solutions, which help organizations increase visibility across dynamic and complex networks. He founded Network Critical in 1997, and today more than 5,000 companies worldwide rely on its technology to help power the network and security monitoring tools needed to control changing infrastructure.

Published Monday, May 13, 2019 7:38 AM by David Marshall
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