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Software-defined future

Using software to increase control over networks is a hot topic right now, and it’s set to get even hotter. What’s all the fuss about?

Getting packets of data from one spot on the globe to another remains a bit of a black art. Very few users understand what happens to their data once it leaves their network port and almost no one has any control over the process. Data flows along pre-defined routes and switching this on-the-fly is not something a normal systems administrator can do.

The move towards software defined networking (SDN) looks set to change this.

SDN takes the control element of a network device and separates it from the physical hardware. With multiple physical devices being controlled from a single system, it’s possible to treat networks in much the same way server hypervisors operate today.

SDN will also allow the network administrator to shape traffic, ensuring key users and applications get the performance they need out of the network with a degree of control not possible today. Ian Jansen van Rensburg, Systems Engineering manager, Southern Africa at VMware, explains the problem networking faces nowadays is that it’s stuck in an environment similar to the one cellphone users experienced before the advent of the modern smartphone era. Phones were great at making calls but accessing any additional functionality required delving into complex menu systems and knowing exactly what to do. The ease with which functionality can be accessed in an iOS or Android device provides a neat analogy for how SDN could transform the way networks are managed.

Step closer to the cloud

Chris Norton, senior regional director, Southern Africa at VMware, says implementing SDN as a function of what the company calls the ‘software defined datacentre’ is a step on the road towards cloud computing where it’s possible to dynamically provision and de-provision network resources according to the needs of the users.

While this approach may not resonate with small and medium businesses, for companies with large and distributed facilities and service providers having to run hosted environments for multiple clients in multiple datacentres, this is key to building the next generation of services.

The software-based approach will simplify the management of existing networks by enabling network administrators to shape network traffic according to the needs at a given time or let companies running cloud-based infrastructure shift virtual machines from one environment to another with all its attributes intact. It also allows application developers to build in functionality, enabling applications to dynamically provision their own networking requirement.

This is not, however, something that will be on the shelves tomorrow. While there are elements of the technology available today and companies that like to play on the bleeding edge of technology are already using it internally, there’s still a significant amount of hype surrounding SDN.

Omar Sultan, senior manager for emerging technologies at Cisco, says a good analogy is the early days of cloud computing, when there was a lot of hype around the technology but it took some time for the practical uses to emerge.

Says Sultan: “Any organisation looking to use the technology needs to evaluate what benefits it hopes to extract from offering services based on SDN. This initial evaluation will dictate how fast it needs to roll out offerings to the market.”

Service providers, in particular, are likely to be early adopters of the technology because of the ability of software-based management tools to drive increased automation in the datacentre resulting in decreased operational costs.

Opening up

The key to the success of SDN, however, does not lie in the hands of a single vendor. SDN already has two key pieces of technology – OpenFlow and OpenDaylight – that have garnered broad acceptance from some of the biggest players in the industry.

For those selling networking products and services, the emergence of open standards and the separation of the control and forwarding elements of networking means customers are not going to be as tied to specific vendors as they have been in the past.

Sultan, however, says Cisco does not see SDN as a threat but sees the technology providing the company with the ability to deliver greater depth of services.

That, and the broad support of the key networking vendors, ensures development of an end-to-end software-defined architecture is taking a step closer to reality.

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