SDN: Your network is about to get a lot smarter

Software-defined networking is a slam-dunk in the cloud service provider community, but it’s making its way into enterprises with a need fast provisioning and fluid infrastructures.

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Double-digit growth for a particular product category is one thing, but growth of more than 50 per cent, per year, usually demands a double take — and software-defined networking is set for a 53.9 per cent compound annual growth rate from 2014 to 2020, according to IDC.

The research firm announced its figures in early February, estimating a US$12.5 billion market for the technology in four years’ time. Why is this so important?

Consider this situation: You’re a Canadian business with multiple offices around the country and hundreds of employees. Whenever the business changes, you have to reconfigure the network to maintain performance and security. When someone wants to test out a rack of virtual machines, you have to be sure that it doesn’t choke off your VoIP traffic. If you want to test a hybrid cloud environment, you have to carefully design and set up the physical network to support it.

“Current network infrastructure struggles hard to cope with end-user bandwidth, mobility demands and cloud computing, much less big data,” said Lawrence Surtees, vice-president of communications research at IDC. “We need a more robust network architecture.”

A smarter network

SDN was designed to change all that, by separating the ‘smart’ part of the network that controls all of the traffic flow from the ‘dumb’ part — the silicon that does all the heavy lifting. The high-speed silicon that processes the network packets still does its work, but now, a central controller can tell all what to do. That makes it possible for software to do to the network what virtualization did for the server, abstracting it from the hardware, and making it easier to manipulate.

“It’s a new architecture for next-generation networks, and a platform for delivering carrier-based cloud services to the enterprise,” said Surtees. “In the enterprise itself, large, diverse networks can benefit from applying this too.”

This leads to a new kind of network in which new virtual networks can be quickly created, bandwidth can be load balanced and traffic can be automatically shaped according to rules dynamically set by administrators or even directly by software applications.

Surtees believes that SDN is part of what IDC calls the ‘third platform’ for IT. The first was the mainframe, he explained, and the second was the PC era, which distributed computing resources and made them more portable.

“The third platform is formed by a mashup of four things: cloud, wireless, big data and social media with collaboration,” he said. “These are the drivers for the network architectures that are unfolding and the collective sum is far bigger than each piece, which is why the third platform is so much more transformative than the platforms before.”

Supporting computing’s new wave

To support these computing models, IT infrastructure must be more agile than ever before. SDN is one of several software-defined components making it more elastic and instantly configurable.

We can see this at work in new hyper-scale operations that were built from the ground up to be software-defined, said Surtees. Amazon Web Services offers three clicks to create a virtual machine and 100,000 new provisions a day. That wouldn’t be possible without SDN, he contended.

SDN is a slam-dunk in the cloud service provider community, but it’s gradually making its way into enterprises, which also need fast provisioning and fluid infrastructures. Applications that are SDN-aware will one day be able to configure their own services, Surtees envisions.

“Applications can talk to the network to request services like quality of service, class of service and bandwidth,” he said. “It also offers the potential to implement dynamic provisions, meaning the provision of network resources to support the needs of applications in real time.”

The path to SDN for enterprises may not be quick. They may need to experiment with the technology slowly and build confidence. But once they find their feet, it promises significant benefits for those organizations wanting to experiment with cloud computing — whether private or hybrid.

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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