Data Centers

How software-defined networking will benefit IT and organizations

Digital networks are complex, and getting more so every day because of the burgeoning traffic loads. Software-defined networking appears ready to step in and simplify things.

A graphical representation of SDN's architectural components and their interactions.
 Image: Open Networking Foundation

In the world of network engineers and administrators, Software-Defined Networking (SDN) is destined to be a game-changer. Wally Bahny noted in a recent TechRepublic article that SDN was far and away the most talked about topic at this year's Interop. Why is it capturing so much attention? The big hope is that SDN will simplify the management of today's complex digital networks.

What is SDN?

Nobody is quite sure how to define it. There is a faction that believes the acronym should be SMN (Software-Managed Networks) instead of SDN. "During the SDN Keynote Panel at Interop," Bahny said, "the panelists argued over the definition of SDN: Is it the virtualization of hardware or is it the next level — the ability to rapidly scale and change the architecture using automated tools?"

It's best to agree to a talking-point definition, so we're on the same page. The definition of SDN offered by Open Networking Foundation (PDF) seems to be one that raises the least amount of debate:

"The aim of SDN is to provide open interfaces enabling development of software that can control the connectivity provided by a set of network resources and the flow of network traffic through them, along with possible inspection and modification of traffic that may be performed in the network."

Simply put, SDN is a new way of managing networks that virtually separates network control (intelligence) from the network plane (actual work of packet forwarding).

IT department benefits

If all goes according to plan, IT departments will see the following benefits from implementing SDN:

  • Lower hardware and operating costs: More than half of the network admins running SDN systems have seen reduced hardware costs (a key SDN selling point). However, the same admins stated their biggest gain has been reduced operating expenses (you can read an opinion to the contrary at InformationWeek Network Computing).
  • Adaptability: Using SDN means the entire network is centrally controlled. Being centrally controlled means network-wide, or individual device adjustments can be made quickly and without remoting into the network device manually.
  • Increased uptime: Removing manual intervention to individual networking devices eliminates errors that potentially cause downtime.
  • Improved management and planning: A single management console with better visibility into network resources simplifies planning, and the setting up of networks — real and virtual.
  • Tighter security: SDNs can handle the increased security demands (which is not possible with hard-wired networks) placed on the company's infrastructure by new applications, BYOD, and VM products.

How organizations will benefit

There have been numerous articles written about the networking benefits of SDN, but little in the way of how SDNs will benefit those not directly involved with IT. The report Software Defined Networking (SDN) Market (SDN Switching, Controllers, Cloud Virtualization application, Network Virtualization Security, End-Users)-Global Advancements, Market Forecasts and Analysis (2014-2019) from Markets and Markets states that SDN solutions are used by:

"[V]erticals such as Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance (BFSI), Educational Institutions, Government, and Telecom and IT Industries."

Next, let's look at how these types of organizations will benefit:

  • BFSI: Financial and insurance organizations rely heavily on digital networks to conduct daily business; the bigger companies are paying considerable amounts for that convenience. SDN-type solutions will lower that cost, and allow companies tighter control of the network from a centralized interface.
  • Educational institutions: School communities have all the same challenges, plus protecting student privacy, and the unique opportunity of dealing with inquisitive younger adults. SDN will help lower management costs, as well as improve security by facilitating real-time monitoring and control over device configuration.
  • Government: A government's infrastructure is "off the charts" complex in every category. SDN technology would at least give network administrators a fighting chance at knowing the status of their infrastructure, and solving bottlenecks as soon as they crop up.
  • Telecom and IT industries: Both industries will benefit as much as governments from SDN. Currently, configuring a large backbone infrastructure scattered across the country is no easy task. Using SDN, changes are handled simply and quickly at the Network Operations Center or NOC.

Trickle-down theory

The reports I have read while researching this article suggest major telecom providers, the big data centers, and large ISPs initially benefit the most from implementing SDN. However, the trickle-down theory will eventually kick in, and smaller organizations will start reaping the benefits of SDN.

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