The Brave New World of Software-Defined Networking

Arthur Cole

It seems all the stars have aligned behind software-defined networking (SDN). More so than networking virtualization, SDN represents true abstraction on the network level, which means for the first time we can envision a truly stateless data center — one whose resources are spread across town or across the globe.

For this reason, some are touting SDN, in conjunction with server and storage virtualization, as significant a development as the creation of the Internet itself — a game-changing paradigm shift that will create entirely new industries, and sources of wealth, even as it tears down the old ones. InfoWorld's Eric Knorr laid out some of the more intriguing possibilities in some detail recently. In his future, applications will drive the configuration of data environments, not the other way around. Customized pools of resources can be configured and disposed of at will, all fully optimized according to the needs of a given application. Moreover, multiple software-defined data centers will be able to share physical infrastructure, all residing within their own security and authentication frameworks, providing limitless availability and scalability to those who need it, and can pay for it.

That's a bright future, indeed, but it won't happen without some effort and a re-ordering of some long-held networking practices. According to Forrester's Andre Kindness, transition to a workload-centric infrastructure will require three things: standardization, self-service and pay-per-use. Infrastructure itself will have to revolve around tools like automation/orchestration, monitoring/data collection and configuration/management. The goal is to foster a high level of coordination between switches, load balancers and the like to ensure resources can be made available where and when they are needed. A good place to start would be standardization of config files, systems and firmware, along with the processes and operations that govern them.

Of course, this will be somewhat more difficult to do without a strong technology partner at your back. Fortunately, many of the top platform vendors are pursuing SDN at a rapid pace — a testament to its ability to reshape technology markets. And as can be expected, the race is on to own as much of the technology stack as possible. Cisco is hoping to run things under its Open Network Environment (ONE) that separates the control, data and forwarding planes and, hopefully, will provide a broader, more flexible infrastructure than the VMware-backed OpenFlow protocol. Note, however, that VMware made a name for itself in server virtualization because it didn't already have a thriving business selling physical servers. The same can't be said of Cisco in the networking sphere.

VMware also recently acquired a valuable SDN platform from Nicira, for which it paid a stunning $1.26 billion. The company's Network Virtualization Platform is said to have drawn high praise from a number of top-tier enterprise customers that gave it a go while Nicira was still in stealth mode. The system uses a distributed controller that provides insight and management of logical network resources, much the same way the vSphere does for servers. In this way, entire compute modules can be provisioned on the virtual layer, complete with a virtual switch that is both portable and can communicate with everything else on the network. The downside here is that networking is relatively new for VMware, and it remains to be seen whether the company's prowess in virtual environments will be enough to overcome that fact.

It's been said that truly significant change can only happen over long periods of time. That may be true in most circumstances, but history tells of at least one French king and one Russian czar who would probably beg to differ. In SDN's case, some changes to the physical network are in order, but they are not necessarily burdensome.

And once all the action shifts from the hardware layer to software, it's a good bet that the new world order will come into being very quickly.

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