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The dawn of the flat network?

Over time, device-centric changes could alter the way we build networks and greatly impact the networking industry.

For the longest time, networks were built in three tiers: access, aggregation, and core.

This made a lot of sense back in the old days because of network technology limitations and traffic patterns. But alas, network usage and technology have radically changed since then. Network packets carry all sorts of traffic consisting of chatty protocols, voice, and multimedia. As for networking technology, many historical limitations are fading away. Today's networking devices have superior capabilities in four key areas:

1. Wireless support
The new 802.11n IEEE standard is a game changer that may eliminate the need for most wired connections.

2. Port density
A 24-port access switch can join others in a stackable or virtual configuration. The result? Tons of ports for connectivity.

3. Performance
Networking equipment combines 10-gigabit Ethernet with incredibly fast system backplanes.

4. Intelligence
Devices can easily combine Layer 2 switching, Layer 3 routing, and a host of other packet processing capabilities.

Over time, these device-centric changes could alter the way we build networks and greatly impact the networking industry. Packet processing and forwarding decisions will be made throughout the network, not at specific aggregation points alone. As this happens, the network could morph into an intelligent flat fabric rather than today's hierarchical structure.

No, this won't happen overnight, but the roots are already being planted. Hewlett-Packard has been talking this game for a while and is rapidly becoming a major networking player. Juniper Networks' entrance into the Ethernet switching market will also accelerate the model. As for Cisco Systems, it has the most to lose but is adjusting its game accordingly. John Chambers & Co. may not want a flat network, but they understand that technology advances are pushing the network in this direction.

Jon Oltsik is a senior analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group.