August 4, 2023

Building a switch-free architecture for better enterprise connectivity

What do virtually all new technologies, set to transform enterprises and deliver huge untold benefits, have in common? They all rely heavily on constant, high-bandwidth connectivity. Enterprises are looking to take advantage of an increasing number of data-hungry technologies; however, traditional enterprise network architecture is creaking under the strain of modern connectivity requirements.

Steve Cass, Product Manager

In this blog, Steve Cass, Regional Sales Manager at RFS, looks at the challenges of enterprise network architecture, identifying the key issues and offering a simpler, more secure, radical alternative. 
The limitations of the status quo
The existing model for enterprise networks and the current way organizations want to use connectivity to facilitate various business functions are, in many ways, not compatible. 
In the current enterprise network setup, each floor's switch has a multimode fiber connection. From there, the switch utilizes UTP (Unshielded Twisted Pair) or FTP (Foiled Twisted Pair) cables to distribute connections throughout the building. The combination of cable that cannot cope with high-capacity tasks and switches that become chokepoints in the network make this unfit for purpose.  
The existing network infrastructure was designed with fairly simple use cases in mind, file sharing, for example. It was not initially designed for current high-bandwidth applications, such as voice or video streaming. It will certainly struggle to cope as this demand grows as more organizations look to take advantage of next-generation technologies. There are already proven use cases for Augmented Reality in hospitals, connected vehicles in warehouses, etc., but enterprises need a network infrastructure that can support this. 
The switched networks described are ill-equipped to handle the demands of continuous traffic. The current response to the challenges of existing enterprise networks has been to add to the complexity in a bid to keep pace with capacity demands. However, even upgraded to provide greater bandwidth, data-intensive applications risk causing bottlenecks and hampering network performance.
But what if we said there was a radical, alternative approach that was tried-and-tested, robust, and wholly fit for purpose? 
A new approach
Switches can be a bottleneck for enterprise networks, but they simply do not exist in telecom infrastructure networks. Much bigger, higher-capacity networks manage bandwidth and capacity needs without switches, so why can’t this approach be applied to enterprise requirements? 
The answer is that it can. 
The approach that RFS is using with an increasing number of customers is to leverage GPON technology. Initially developed over 20 years ago to deliver fiber to the home, Gigabit Passive Optical Networks (GPON) is a fiber-optic communication technology designed for high-speed data transmission in telecommunications networks. 
In a G-PON architecture, the network is divided into three main components: 

  • Optical Line Terminal (OLT)
  • Optical Network Units (ONUs)
  • Passive Optical Splitters

In an enterprise setting, the OLT acts as the central control and aggregation point in the network. Eliminating the need for switches, the OLT handles data traffic to and from multiple ONUs. ONUs are the end connectivity points and can be located across a site depending on the enterprise's connectivity needs. Finally, Passive Optical Splitters are the critical elements in a G-PON network. They allow a single optical fiber from the OLT to be split into multiple fibers, connecting to different ONUs. The optical signals are then distributed among the ONUs and do not require any active power or electronic processing. 
For the enterprise end-user, the impact of moving to this architecture is minimal. The elements of a switched network they are used to are replaced by a GPON alternative. However, the completely different approach to achieving enterprise-wide connectivity delivers far greater results. 
Moving to a G-PON model for enterprise connectivity gives hugely improved and, importantly, consistent downstream and upstream data rates. This approach can achieve symmetrical gigabit speeds (1 Gbps) or more. This high bandwidth is what enterprises are looking to achieve, and GPON offers a much simpler and more effective way to achieve this vs. switched network alternatives. 
Mission critical applications
This approach can offer even greater benefits when we move into the mission-critical space. One of the biggest challenges with mission-critical is that many go-to solutions are robust enough to serve an organization's needs – unless there is a problem with power. At this point, the mission-critical solution fails and is no longer fit for purpose. Addressing the power aspect of mission-critical is as important as delivering the connectivity. 
At RFS, we have a dedicated portfolio of combined fiber and power solutions that allow enterprises with mission-critical requirements to run not only a fiber connection but a power connection to every remote device. This then can be connected to a single protected power source in the main comms room to give a more robust infrastructure that is a more complete mission-critical solution. 
What are the strengths of a switch-free architecture?
Now that we understand what a switch-free architecture looks like, what are the benefits that enterprises stand to gain by making the switch?

  1. Better Bandwidth Allocation
    In a traditional network, switches play a crucial role in managing bandwidth allocation and traffic flow. However, with a "switch-free" architecture, this concern becomes a thing of the past. By providing massive bandwidth support, the network can effortlessly handle triple and quad-play services, such as voice, video, data, and more, all at once, providing a network that is fit for purpose. 
  2. Reducing TCO 

    As you would expect, the core principle of a "switch-free" architecture is to eliminate switches altogether. This move to a passive architecture means no expensive switch hardware, no power consumption, and no cooling requirements. By eradicating these components, businesses can significantly reduce capital expenditures (CAPEX) and operational costs (OPEX).
  3. Security Benefits 

    With no switches and telecoms closets, businesses reduce the cyber-attack surface area of security for their network. A "switch-free" design drastically reduces the number of potential entry points for cyber threats, making it harder for malicious actors to penetrate the network. The aim of switch free is to improve connectivity, but the side effect of enhanced security offers wider-reaching benefits.
  4. Future-Proofing 

    One of the most compelling aspects of a "switch-free" architecture is its future-proof capabilities. By eliminating switches, businesses no longer need to worry about periodic upgrades. As technology advances and demands grow, this innovative design can effortlessly accommodate new applications and services without costly and time-consuming infrastructure overhauls.
  5. Scalability and Flexibility
    Flexibility is a crucial factor in the success of any business. A "switch-free" architecture offers scalability that cannot be achieved with traditional enterprise architecture. This allows organizations to adapt and expand their networks effortlessly as capacity needs increase without the need for an infrastructure overhaul. 
  6. A greener solution 

    The use of passive components in G-PON reduces power consumption and minimizes maintenance requirements; this not only contributes to the lower TCO we mentioned but makes it a more environmentally friendly solution at a time when sustainability is a priority.
  7. Mission-critical capabilities

    As mentioned, the G-PON approach, when deployed using hybrid fiber and power cabling, gives a robust and true mission-critical architecture. 

A "switch-free" network architecture represents a wholesale shift in how businesses approach their network infrastructures. However, enterprises should not feel daunted by this. It is rare that a radical change comes with a proven track record, but by taking telecoms principles and applying them to an enterprise environment, we can do just that. RFS’s expertise in telecoms and, specifically, cable makes for the ideal partner for enterprises looking to embrace a new model for connectivity. 
By eliminating switches, enterprises can capitalize on numerous advantages, including cost savings, increased security, seamless bandwidth allocation, better mission-critical, and genuine future-proof capabilities. As technology continues to drive innovation and connectivity becomes even more critical, adopting this design will empower businesses to take full advantage of new technologies as they emerge.