SDN: Facts vs Myths

By George Chacko, Principal Systems Engineering and Lead Technical Consultant, Brocade India

Over the last two years, Software Defined Networks (SDN) has been pegged as a data center savior – one that transforms the network, unlocks critical intelligence, and helps deliver the new services and powerful analytics needed to run on-demand applications for today’s organizations 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.

Given 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, its significance, and examines 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.

SDN lets network managers configure, manage, secure, and optimize network resources very quickly via dynamic, automated SDN programs, which they can write themselves because the programs do not depend on proprietary software. When implemented through open standards, SDN simplifies network design and operation because instructions are provided by SDN controllers instead of multiple, vendor-specific devices and protocols. 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.

In a software-defined network, a network administrator can shape traffic from a centralized control console without having to touch individual switches, and can deliver services to wherever it is needed in the network. 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.

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:

SDN does not work for small data centers: SDN is perceived to be suitable only for large data-centers, the truth however is that SDN can be useful for all kinds of data centers. It works perfectly with small firms with lean teams as it can greatly reduce the burden on the IT department.

SDN will mean the end for many IT jobs: SDN promises some real benefits for people who use networks, but to the engineers, SDN won’t spell job losses. SDN, and the broader trend of network automation, uses a higher layer of software to control networks in a more abstract way. 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.

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.

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 is capable to radically change the face of the data center. It’s ushering in a new way of networking that is, reducing costs, creating businesses and preparing 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 is 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.

SDN is becoming essential to enterprise data centers, and in turn, CIOs will need to think about how this technology will impact data center design. From a strategic perspective, they need to think about how to build the right data center mix, considering servers, storage and networks in equal parts.

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