OVER the last six months, software-defined networking (SDN) has become the hottest buzzword not just in enterprise networking but among service providers as well, with research networks, large DC hosting and cloud providers as some of the early adopters.
An emerging concept that promises improved network performance, flexibility and manageability, SDN has the potential to revolutionise networking while unlocking a wave of innovation for application services.
To better understand the benefits of SDN it is important to look at how it fits in the broader perspective of IT trends and ask what problems will it solve and who will it help.
Today's networks are inefficient, difficult to scale, cost-intensive in time and resources, and incapable of supporting flexible operations.
In most cases, all networking intelligence is distributed across physical switches and routers using standardised protocols. Configuration of networking equipment is primarily performed on each switch independently.
The result is an excessively complex network architecture. To enforce a change, network operators will have to go down to the individual switch or router and re-configure the routing protocol; a time consuming task especially in large networks and datacentres.
To use an analogy, it is akin to writing a book using a chisel on stone slabs. If you make a mistake, you must pick up your chisel and re-write the content on another slab, making it a very tedious task.
SDN separates network data traffic processing from the logic and rules controlling the flow of that data. It gives service providers and enterprises control over how to manage their data, to the level that they are able to enforce different rules and routing capabilities, including deciding what type of data goes local and what type of data goes remote.
In essence, SDN can enable an organisation to gain visibility and control access to the network and resources to the granular level, enabling IT managers to solve specific issues that affect the network.
To extend the earlier metaphor, imagine you are writing the same story as before, but this time you are using a computer. If you make an error, it is automatically highlighted, or corrected. You can re-arrange the story with a click of a button and everything is stored and viewable in one avenue rather than on multiple stone slabs. Suddenly, your work has become faster, more flexible and easier to manage through a single portal.
By enabling enterprises to have a central overview of the entire network architecture, customers are able to tune the network accordingly to meet business needs.
More importantly, it gives network operators and vendors an avenue to experiment with network optimisation ideas and strategies in a real network setting without affecting the current flow of data.
Operators can now customise their networks to better suit their business needs. This holds the promise of starting a new network innovation cycle, with companies fighting to create network-based applications and services.
In fact, IDC forecasts that SDN will grow from a US$200mil (RM600mil) market in 2013 to US$2bil (RM6bil) in 2016.
The dramatic growth in the SDN market will be driven by companies working towards solving existing problems with networks - security, robustness and manageability and by innovating new revenue generating services on network infrastructures.
Ultimately, the goal is to provide a highly flexible cloud-optimised network solution that is scalable within the cloud. In our view, this "new" network will be powered by fabric-based architectures, which provide the any-to-any connectivity critical to realising the full benefits of SDN.
These include network virtualisation, programmatic control of the infrastructure, automation and dynamic configuration, on-demand service insertion and pay-per-use, all through standards-based software orchestration tools.
Cloud service deployment will be faster, datacentre management will be simpler and network operation will be easier.
While it is still early days, SDN has the potential to transform network infrastructures into a platform for innovation. We are partnering with industry technology leaders and network operators, and working closely with standards bodies like the Open Networking Foundation to make this a reality.
The success of SDN lies in enabling innovation through an open environment in order to deliver high value, game changing applications.
(Sean Ong is country manager for Malaysia at Brocade Communications Systems, a networking solutions vendor.)