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Plexxi for the 99.9 percent

A few weeks ago I attempted to explain what Plexxi does to someone that was not very familiar with computer networking and data centers. He owns a landscaping business and his knowledge of computers is mostly limited to casual use for browsing and some basic billing and quoting. Those moments are very humbling, it provides a great sense that while we (or maybe just me) think we do important and extremely exciting work, the vast majority of everyone else outside our little club really does not know anything about what we do, or care to know anything about what we do. And that is a wonderful reality check.

He was however sincerely interested in what we do and what was special about what we do. I spent about 10 minutes explaining what a data center is and what purpose it serves. Having everyone in the world know and use Facebook, Google, eBay and the likes really helps as a reference point of “something” that is being provided out of a large warehouse filled with computers. It is also relatively easy to articulate the size of the larger data centers in terms of the amount of computers and pure physical size, and coupled with an explanation of 100,000s of users all being “connected” to the same data center gets a reasonable association and explanation of size for most.

After that however, it gets much harder to keep explaining to those not in our little club. When I start explaining how all these computers need to be connected together because they “talk” to each other, and that we use specialized computers called “switches” and “routers” for that, the level of attention starts to wane. Speed of servers, interface cards, network capacity, bandwidth and any of these things we worry about every day have almost no meaning to everyone else. I have many times explained it by doing comparisons to the typical home computer and home broadband access speed but really the comparison means nothing. And except for us nerdy folks, they have tuned out. And probably rightfully so.

Once lost, it’s very hard to bring back. Let alone talking about optimizations, topologies, forwarding behaviors, Affinities, Integrations, APIs and all the other things that differentiate Plexxi from our competitors. So how then do you explain datacenter networking in general and Plexxi value-add specifically to someone that really does not want to know the details?

Think about the variety of ways you can send mail around the world. There is regular mail where you simply drop it into the mailbox. The post office folks take the pile of mail and separate local vs non local mail. Local mail is kept in the post office and sorted for delivery. Non local is trucked off to a processing center where it is sorted by destination. Mail is marked with a unique code (two actually, one in front that is a representation of the zip code, one in the back in bright orange that is a unique identifier of the letter, overlays anyone?), sorted, and then either passed onto the next processing plant, or passed back to a post office served by this processing plant. On the process goes until the delivery man or woman picks up mail for his or her route and delivers it.

This works fine, but sometimes you need to ship something fast. Faster than normal mail. You pay extra, but your mail takes a different path to get to its destination. Priority mail gets simple preferential treatment in the same process, but you can get better service, Express Mail (overnight delivery) that will shortcut the route between source and destination. Parcel service is bulky and requires different trucks and possibly different routes. The customer requests a specific service, and the Post Office provides it by changing the way they transport the mail.

Datacenter networks provide a similar service to servers in a data center. Except that today’s networks can only provide regular First Class and Priority mail. It all travels the same route. Which means when certain destinations are popular, things slow down. And if you want it there faster, you can’t. Or if you need to send lots of bulky mail, it takes the place of lots of regular mail. The specialized service is simply not provided.

What Plexxi networks provide is Express Mail, Parcel mail and several other variations to servers in a datacenter, combined with a system that allows you to register what type of mail you send to someone else. And that same system looks at all that needs to be delivered and figures out the best way to do so. For all the different types of mail.

I smile when I get an understanding nod when I complete my explanation of what Plexxi does and what makes it different. Mission accomplished and reality checked. We work in a little world of data centers and networking and virtualization and overlays and as exciting as it is to us, 99.9% of everyone else has no idea what we are talking about. And that’s a good thing.

[Today's fun fact: The U.S. city with the highest rate of lightning strikes per capita is Clearwater, Florida. When I first read that it sounded just fine, until I read the "per capita", which made this a weird fact.]

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More Stories By Marten Terpstra

Marten Terpstra is a Product Management Director at Plexxi Inc. Marten has extensive knowledge of the architecture, design, deployment and management of enterprise and carrier networks.