science and technology

What Is Data Center Switches And Their Usage? 

Published: April 8, 2024
Author: Jessica

The backbone of any modern data center is its network – directing petabytes of data between servers, storage, and applications every second with laser-focused precision. The humble yet heroic data center switches are at the center of it all, carrying the lion’s share of the load. 

Technological demands on data centers have skyrocketed, from virtualization and cloud computing to artificial intelligence and real-time analytics. These unsung networking champions have had to bulk up to take on exponentially greater workloads. Trillions of lightning-fast packets crash through their ports every minute, yet outflow like a smooth, silken stream with no drop spilled. 

This article will discuss what exactly data center switches are and explore their key usages and functionality. 

What Is Data Center Switches? 

Data center switches are network switches specifically designed for use in large enterprise data centers or cloud computing environments. The main job of a data center switch is to connect servers, storage and other IT devices, and to efficiently route data between them. 

Data center switches are different from a typical networking switch used in small office environments because it is designed to handle large volumes of data flowing at high speeds. Data center switches support networking protocols such as Ethernet and Fibre Channel, as well as InfiniBand, and they have port densities up to 100Gbps or higher to provide enough bandwidth for high-bandwidth applications. 

Key Usages and Functionality of Data Center Switches  

  1. Role of Connectivity in Data Center Switches 

First, connectivity is one of the main functions of a data center switch. Connectivity manages data flow between various devices in a data center’s network. In the past, data centers had a three-tiered architecture, which included access switches, aggregation switches, and core switches. 

However, data centers increasingly use flattened two-tiered architectures for increased scalability and performance. 

Regardless of the topology, data centers’ switches form the backbone of the physical network infrastructure. They allow servers to talk to each other, as well as routers and firewalls, as well as other systems.  

SANs (storage area networks) are also used to connect servers to storage arrays. Finally, with the increase in virtualization, VMs can connect to and transfer data between servers. 

  1. Ensuring Reliability and Redundancy

Data center infrastructure is critical to the success of any organization, as it powers critical workloads and provides digital services. With thousands of interconnected physical and virtual interconnected components, failure is inevitable. This is where data center switches prove essential. 

Modern switches provide redundancy and reliability features that prevent disruptions. MLAG (Multi-Chassis Link Aggregation) automatically backs up link failures between two dual switches. FRUs (Hot-Swappable Field Replaceable Units), such as power supplies, fans, and line cards, ensure that services continue to operate during maintenance activities.  

Twist stacking allows multiple physical devices to act as a single logical entity. In a switch failure, control shifts immediately to peer boxes with zero timeouts and near-impossible packet loss.  

Also, dual redundant controllers act as fail safes. ISSU (In-Service Software Update) allows switches to be updated without disrupting traffic flows. These reliability features help data centers reach the “five nines” expected for mission-critical operations. 

  1. Scaling to Meet Capacity Demands

The network needs to grow as data centers grow to accommodate more servers, denser virtualization, and ever-increasing data volume.  

Hence, installing more end-of-row and top-of-rack switches could be more efficient and can lead to complex cabling issues and management headaches. That’s where data center switches come in.  

With modular chassis-based switches, you get incremental scalability. You can start with a simple configuration and easily add line cards or supervisor modules as your needs grow. Their scalable architecture allows you to scale up or down quickly without significant rip-and-replacement upgrades. 

Scalability includes handling larger broadcast domains as well. Data center switches leverage Layer 3 technology, VLANs, and VRF-Light to scale your network while isolating security between tenants and micro-segmentation east-west traffic among workloads. This helps ensure smooth operation and plenty of headroom even as your data center grows exponentially over the next few years. 

  1. Driving the Virtualization Support in Data Centers

Switching infrastructure represents the underlying plumbing enabling server virtualization deployments. Data center switches support key virtualization capabilities like: 

  • Virtual machine mobility – Switches allow live migration of VMs across servers without disrupting connections through technologies such as virtual extensible LAN (VXLAN). 
  • Multi-tenancy – Through VRF-Lite, switches carve the physical network into virtual slices, providing logical separation between tenants and workloads. 
  • Enhanced networking – Features like overlay tunnels through technologies like VXLAN create extended Layer 2 domains connecting VMs dispersed across pods and racks. 
  • Network abstraction – Network virtualization decouples logical networks from the physical underlay, letting operators dynamically configure virtual topologies independent of fixed switch ports. 
  • Automation – VMWare NSX and Cisco ACI leverage switch APIs to programmatically insert VMs into logical switch segments through centralized controllers. 

These virtualization-aware switching functions boost agility, improve workload portability, and simplify data center networking operations overall. They empower private, public, and hybrid cloud deployment models.

  1. Optimizing Traffic Flows in Dense Virtualized Environments

Due to the large scale and density of today’s data centers, there are substantial traffic flows that need to be managed efficiently by switches. This is where advanced traffic management capabilities come in.  

These traffic management capabilities become even more critical as virtualization grows in number.  

For example, a single physical server can run dozens of virtual machines, each with its own bandwidth requirements. With careful traffic stewardship through switches, all of these workloads will be able to maintain acceptable service levels despite the density of the data center. 


Data center switches have come a long way from simple Layer 2/3 switches to intelligent, programmable infrastructures that support today’s sophisticated virtualized environments and distributed network functions virtualization (SDN/network functions) paradigms. 

However, data center switches don’t just connect data centers. They also optimize traffic, scale for growth, meet non-stop availability requirements, and provide a strong security posture. 

Understanding these advanced capabilities allows IT teams to get the most out of switching products as the digital core that powers modern data centers. That’s why data center switches are essential components in next-gen data centers. 



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