Building the backbone

Network operating systems have undergone notable changes over the last few years. NME examines the nature of these enhancements, and how they have transformed the way enterprise networks perform.
Building the backbone
By Sean Robson
Sun 11 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

Network operating systems have undergone notable changes over the last few years. NME examines the nature of these enhancements, and how they have transformed the way enterprise networks perform.

Network operating systems (NOS) play an integral role in the day-to-day operations of the enterprise network. Over time their functionality and importance to the organisation has only increased and they are now responsible for applications and functions ranging from security and account administration, all the way through to print and file sharing.

"Our NOS offering has undergone an evolution. The TMOS platform is designed as a fundamental underlying architecture; a universal platform that is the foundation for all of our products. What has really changed is how it can be used. Customers can now run SSL, compression, web acceleration, our application firewall and everything else we offer to secure, deliver and speed up application traffic on one box," says Nigel Ashworth, technical director MEA at F5 Networks.

We will definitely be introducing a new NOS in the coming year, and at the moment the hot topic is virtualisation. I am definitely introducing it across a couple of my servers to do a sort of a test, and if we start reaping benefits then we will move ahead.

"One of the key things that happened when people were developing systems back in the early 1990s was that everybody went packet-based. What they didn't realize was that packet-based architecture doesn't have the intelligence to deal with multiple applications. So it lacked intelligence versus speed," he says.

"Though F5 initially took the packet-based approach, some years ago we started addressing the root problem. The result is the TMOS architecture, which was designed as a full proxy-based architecture right from the ground up," Ashworth adds.

Extreme Networks is another vendor that has focused on evolving the peripheral products surrounding its operating system as opposed to making whole scale changes.

"We have been in the market since 2003 with our modular operating system, the ExtremeXOS.  From a network operating aspect we offer nothing new but from a hardware point of view we just introduced two main switches," explains Majdi Babaa, technical manager MEA, Extreme Networks.

Juniper Networks believes that its JUNOS single source operating system is unique in that it offers one operating system, enhanced through one release train, and developed based on a single modular architecture.

"These differences allow us to provide carrier-class continuous systems availability, automated network operations, and the open innovation to quickly respond to rapid growth and change, while reducing complexity, cost, and risk. Deploying platforms that run JUNOS software creates an open network infrastructure that interoperates and integrates with existing solutions and systems," says Tarek Abbas, senior systems engineering manager enterprise, Juniper Networks.

Considering evolution

IT is by its very nature in a state of perpetual motion and change and NOS is not immune to this evolution. Over the past year a number of changes have occurred, not only in the technology, but also the application involved.

"We have added a lot more features and made significant enchancements to the operating system we offer over the past year, with specific efforts made in achieving resiliency through the network infrastructure, by ensuring that the operating system is modular, resilient and extendable with open source architecture," says Baaba.

"We are seeing many vendors in the network and communications industry trying to build on this concept of modular operating systems. It is crucial that when you deal with the components of this operating system, you don't deal with the entire operating system, but just with what we call modules or processes that you can manipulate, stop or start, and upgrade. Today, network infrastructure is not just about moving data, there are key applications in the data, for example voice and video, which can not afford downtime," continues Baaba.While vendors tend to view the changes in network operating systems as features and functions added, end-users look at it in the form of operational effeciency.

"I don't think the question is as much about what has changed in terms of NOS as there are new systems constantly coming on the market, like all the Windows upgrades, which offer added value but instead about how quickly and efficiently can you update to the changes," comments GV Rao, general manager ICT, United Development Company in Qatar.

Over the last year especially, the increased adoption of virtualisation technologies, and the appearance of operating systems specifically made for these environments has been garnering increasing interest and attention from regional enterprise end-users.

Enterprises are using our network operating system for the consolidation and delivery of services and applications across distributed environments to ensure consistent accessibility and availability from anywhere at any time.

"The biggest change that I have witnessed, not just over the last year but rather the last two to three years, is a growing trend towards virtualised operating systems," says Indranil Guha, manager IT infrastructure, Dubai Roads Transport Authority.

Making their mark

With the plethora of new and evolved systems coming into the market there is little doubt that there has been an impact felt in the enterprise network space.

In addition, the latest in operating systems offer enterprise networks the ability to protect the services and applications against business risks and sophisticated threats while offering operational improvements to help reduce cost incurred by administrative and training initiatives.

"We have been running mainly on Windows Server 2003 for the past year and it has definitely given us added features and functionality together with improved security and stability," says Bassem Aboukhater, regional IT director MEA, Leo Burnett group.

Even though the average features set of operating systems have increased, many enterprise end-users continue to run multiple network operating systems on their hardware.

IT professional Rao runs three operating systems across his various servers. "We have Unix, Windows and Linux operating systems in our firm. Since we keep upgrading our systems we have new and old operating systems, but we make sure that all NOS are at least synchronised with the latest patches."

"We have definitely garnered a few benefits especially as far as Linux is concerned. It is virus-free, easy to install and maintain and I don't need to have a highly skilled staff to run it," Rao elaborated.

With multiple operating systems becoming an increasing reality, and integration becoming an issue, end-users are moving towards more open standards based architecture.

"What we are hearing is that our open infrastructure benefits enterprises as it allows them to download a free development kit such that they can develop their own ways of dealing with the network," says Baaba.

"Enterprises are using our NOS for the consolidation and delivery of services and applications across distributed environments to ensure consistent accessibility from anywhere at any time. They are also able to leverage rapid deployment and scaling of new services and applications to support evolving business demands," says Abbas. Facing the challenges

The expanding business perspective on the role of IT leads to new considerations for the network as the vital IT foundation. However, the implementation of a new NOS can be complicated by a number of issues.

One of the challenges faced by enterprises is that often times while much of the equipment surrounding the network may be new the actual structure and technology are legacy implementations requiring critical attention.

"These long standing network systems can present roadblocks to achieving contemporary IT goals. For example, the operational requirements to keep the network running - particularly with convergence of applications and increasing congestion levels - may leave few resources for responding to new business demands," says Abbas.

Coupled with this is the fact that the existing solutions might contain inherent complexities that can slow deployment and limit options when new application needs necessitate network modifications.

"While old hardware and outdated or poorly integrated technologies contribute to the problem, it is the software running in legacy networks that most often consumes operational time, causes the majority of operational headaches, and creates the operational obstacles to change," Abbas explains further.

"One problem that can often occur is that of synchronisation. For instance, if you are using a particular exchange and it does not synchronise with the NOS that you want to introduce then components may need to be changed along with the operating system. This can be a headache," explains Rao.

Crystal ball gazing

As enterprises continue to look to grow they are faced with the current economic situation, which requires them to do more with less. This phenomenon has been felt on NOS as well, with IT professionals eager to look at the virtualisation capabilities offered by the latest systems.

"We are looking very closely at virtualisation. And so we are now looking at just which applications we can virtualise, and based on that we select the correct virtualisation NOS," says Guha.

"This will definitely help us to better utilise our servers and improve our physical to virtual server ratio. The knock-on benefits will mean cost savings in terms of energy and space, while at the same time improving on our green initiatives," continues Guha.

"We will definitely be introducing a new NOS in the coming year, and at the moment the hot topic is virtualisation. I am definitely introducing it across a couple of my servers to do a sort of a burning test and if we start reaping benefits then we will move ahead," affirmed Rao.

Aboukhater, too, plans on introducing a new NOS in 2009 in the form of Windows Server 2008 mainly due to its Hyper-V functionality. He also predicts that 2009 will see open source software achieving prominence.

"I do believe that with the current financial situation worldwide and across the region, open source solutions are definitely high on the agenda, for any enterprise" explains Aboukhater.

No matter what looms on the horizon for NOS, it is clear that it will remain a critical element in the network infrastructure with constant development and evolution taking place to meet the changing requirements of the organisation.

NOS - what end-users look for

• Users are looking for a NOS that comes complete with security, as well as built-in virtualisation.

• The NOS they select should meet organisational guidelines regarding appropriate technologies unless there is a specific requirement of a particular solution.

• Compatibility between the incumbent NOS and a new NOS is critical in order to limit any synchronisation issues that may occur.

• Service and support is an important consideration as users look for competent assistance as well as vendors to train staff on the new NOS.

Many users are committed to the adoption of off-the-shelf solutions before going into development in order to eliminate both cost and complexity.

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