There’s no doubt about it, we have a preference for technologies that we can both fully manage and control. Networking technologies, for many of us, haven’t undergone a serious change, unlike many other areas of our data center. We’ve seen virtualization, cloud computing, storage, and operating system changes significantly impact the data center; and now comes along software-defined networking (SDN).  But is it a gateway to greater things, or should we just get away?

As with any new buzzword technologies, my approach is to zero in on the benefits first. With some of the technology changes I mentioned above, the benefits were very clear. Virtualization increased agility and decreased capital acquisition costs. Storage technologies have improved to a point that performance bottlenecks can almost be entirely dissolved (it’s still expensive however). But what does SDN bring?

SDN, like many software-defined technology categories, has a field of vision limited by the vendors delivering the actual solutions. Over time this market will stabilize and have a more consistent offering and benefits, but for now, they are very much tied to the specific implementations. With that in mind, I will talk about benefits in more detail below. First, let’s cover some background information.

What does SDN do?

I’ve had people ask me a simple question: “What does SDN do?” In a most fundamental way I’d offer an explanation that it is a separation of the control plane versus the traffic plane. The traffic plane is where packets (i.e., traffic) reside and the control plane is basically how they are handled. It is in that how part where SDN implementations start to vary quite a bit.

I would imagine that you have “go-to” people you trust for each technology, and in the category of SDN, we’re really lucky to have one of the best communicators in this segment. Scott Lowe (not TechRepublic’s Scott Lowe, which can be very confusing!), a top-level IT pro who is also a blogger and an author of many popular books, now spends most of his professional experience thinking and writing about SDN. I particularly enjoyed one of Scott’s latest blog posts, “Learning NVP, Part 1: High-Level Architecture”.

Scott’s post does a great job of starting the discussion of the high-level architecture for NVP, which is Nicira Virtualization Platform. As it is today, that’s VMware’s offering of SDN — and a good choice for many data centers.

When it comes to the benefits, they will vary from implementation to implementation, but I think some common benefits will be deployment agility and network abstraction. This will present serious opportunities to design resilient infrastructures that can be ready for failure and even more ready for re-balancing. Those are good benefits, but they have to be in line with your needs and requirements. In my experience, I’d “hold” on thinking that you need to look for SDN solutions right now. Many of the details on how it will improve your network need to be more clear, and this area of technology is moving too quickly to consider for any company where I’ve ever worked. So the answer isn’t “get away,” but instead, wait and see how SDN will be a gateway to incredible new opportunities in your data center.

We’re just getting started with SDN; but the benefits have to outweigh any risks or costs. Where are you in your SDN journey? What are you reading to learn more about this emerging segment? Share your comments below.