SDN: definitions, benefits, and misconceptions

In the last 12-18 months, software-defined networks (SDN) has been much touted as a data center savior – one that can transform the network, unlock critical intelligence, and help deliver the new services and powerful analytics needed to run on-demand applications for today’s businesses and consumers. IDC has even gone so far as to predict that the SDN market in Asia Pacific will surpass the $1 billion mark by 2018.

Amid all of the hype and excitement, it can be difficult for IT leaders to tell fact from fiction. This is a closer look at what SDN is, why it matters, and examine some of the myths and fears that have built up around the technology.

A New IP approach to networking

By definition, SDN refers to the separation of the control plane from the data plane within a network. This will be critical to the development of a New IP since it allows an IT department to deploy programmatic controls and orchestration across the whole network, rather than having to provision, configure and manage specific devices on a case-by-case basis. While there are a number of benefits to this approach, there are three critical ones that really make SDN significant for businesses: automation, rapid application deployment and ease of network management.

SDN brings greater automation to an otherwise complicated world. Organizations that want to run an application within a public cloud environment would normally use a self-service portal to manually provision the required resources. This is not only time consuming, and therefore costly, it can also leave a business vulnerable to misconfigurations due to human error.

With SDN, customers only need to select the application they want to run in the cloud and the resources required. The intelligence of the control plane, through orchestration, will then intuitively deploy the service using the optimal configuration of compute, storage and network resources.

Being able to deploy and scale applications rapidly can make or break a business. If an employee does not have to manually provision the compute, storage and network resources needed to deliver an application, businesses are able to get new services up and running much quicker. In addition to easing employee access, SDN can boost a company’s competitive advantage, as it is able to respond to the ever-changing business landscape and limit time-to-market on any new offerings.

Lastly, SDN will drastically alter how network infrastructures are configured and managed. By separating the control function from the rest of the network, SDN enables IT teams to manage network environments in a way that gives them an aerial view of the business.  What that means is, business no longer operate in a collection of siloes.

While greater automation, rapid application deployment and ease of network management have the ability to transform businesses, this is still early days for SDN. New solutions and approaches are being developed all the time but a fully software defined world is unlikely to become a reality for some time to come.

The myths and misconceptions

As with any new technology, SDN has not existed without its naysayers. Before any business looks to implement an SDN solution, it is important to understand the truth behind some of the biggest misconceptions:

  1. SDN does not work for small data centers: SDN is often talked about as being only suitable for large-scale data centers — those that provide cloud services that are public, private or hybrid. While these larger providers are naturally among the early adopters, the truth is that SDN can be hugely beneficial for all levels of data centers. Not least because it can make configuration, management and monitoring a much simpler task, which can greatly reduce the burden on the IT department– perfect for small firms with lean teams.
  2. SDN will mean the end for many IT jobs: The notion that SDN-enabled environments will require less hands-on effort to keep them up and running compared to traditional networking environments is true, but it does not mean that the traditional network manager role will disappear. As businesses transition to SDN models, the demand for network skills will only increase and remain as it continues to evolve. What is true is that the type of skills needed in the New IP era will change – businesses and IT professionals should be aware of this and should be tailoring their training and development plans accordingly.
  3. SDN is not required if servers are already virtualized: This is simply not true. It is the case that extending the principals of server virtualization to the network by swapping out traditional hardware with a more agile virtualized network infrastructure will bring more of the same important benefits.  However, SDN can also do a great deal more, in particular it can allow the network to extend into the server and provide efficient management and visibility of inter-server traffic.
  4. The entire data center network needs to be replaced in order to implement SDN: The ‘rip and replace’ method is not a requirement of a successful SDN. With several ways to migrate from traditional networking infrastructure to SDN, it can be as simple as making SDN devices the default choice for networking components as part of the existing hardware refresh plan or deploying SDN whenever new equipment is added for new projects or expansion.

Beyond the network of today

Misconceptions aside, it is clear that SDN has the potential to radically change the face of the data center. It’s ushering in a new way of networking that is, reducing costs, creating scalable businesses and equipping organizations for the greater demands of tomorrow.

However, SDN’s future is closely linked to the establishment of clear and genuinely open industry standards. The creation of open standards is the only way to guarantee that network products will be interoperable regardless of the manufacturer, something which is vital to avoiding vendor lock-in and enabling an all-important holistic approach to network management.

Thankfully, the shift to open standards in already underway with leading organizations, such as OpenDayLight, OpenFlow and OpenStack, putting pressure on the industry to take openness seriously.

As part of the New IP approach to networking, SDN has the potential to turn the promise of new and evolving technologies like cloud, Big Data, the Internet of Things and seamless mobility into a reality. While CIOs and IT Directors alike are still taking stock of SDN, it is undeniable that businesses that want to be compete in the future need to be evaluating their existing infrastructures and thinking carefully about how SDN will fit in with their long-term networking strategies.

Chee Keong Lam is the Director of Data Center Fabric and Virtualization for Asia-Pacific, Brocade