Business agility through SDN

Software-defined networking will help to better deliver applications and services.

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Business agility through SDN Marcus Jewell, vice president, EMEA, Brocade.
By  Marcus Jewell Published  March 11, 2014

The network has never been more critical to business success. For organisations of any size — and in any sector — it is the network that will turn the promise of new and evolving technologies such as cloud, big data, machine-to-machine communications, bring your own device (BYOD) and seamless mobility into reality.

Yet the network that will underpin these shifts cannot cope with today’s pressures, let alone tomorrow’s. Exponential traffic growth and increased server virtualisation are putting more strain on the network than ever before. And, with nine out of ten IT decision makers admitting that their infrastructure requires substantial upgrades, it is clear that the network has to evolve. If it does not, the potential benefits of these new technologies will never be fully achieved.

Fortunately, the next stage in the network’s evolution is almost here. Software-defined networking (SDN) will radically transform the network, unlocking its intelligence to provide the new services and powerful analytics that are needed to deliver the applications and services demanded by today’s business leaders.

An introduction to SDN
From a technology standpoint, SDN refers to the separation of the part of the network that is responsible for routing and directing traffic (known as the control plane) from the part that carries the traffic itself (known as the data plane). The goal is to allow organisations to respond rapidly to changing business requirements. By simplifying how network resources are deployed and managed, SDN gives businesses far greater control of their data and applications.

Faster application deployment
Increased network intelligence and an open environment centralises network operation and management and facilitates rapid application development. This means that businesses are able to offer and scale an increased number of network applications in order to support new services.

At a business level, reducing the time needed to manage the network and deploy new resources or applications can have a major impact. 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 far more quickly. As well as greatly increasing an organisation’s agility, this also boosts competitive advantage by reducing the time it takes to get new offerings to market.

Greater automation
We are already seeing cloud service providers (CSPs) adopting SDN functionality for precisely this reason.With traditional networking technologies, a business that wants to run an application within a public cloud environment would use a self-service portal to manually provision the required resources. This is not only time-consuming, and therefore costly, but it can also result in misconfigurations through human error.

SDN allows this process to be automated. Customers simply need to select what kind of application they want to run in the cloud and the resources required. The intelligence of the control plane, through orchestration, will then automatically deploy the service using the optimal configuration of compute, storage and network resources.

Simpler network management
SDN will also significantly alter the way that network infrastructures are configured and managed. By separating the control function from the rest of the network, SDN will give IT teams the ability to manage network environments at a higher level. This will make it easier than ever for businesses to take a holistic approach to network infrastructures - managing them as a unified whole rather than a collection of siloes, and increasing overall network efficiency.

We are already seeing this happen in the market. Take, for example, Internet2 Network, a high-performance network that connects America’s colleges and universities to research and education collaborators worldwide.

These institutions transfer massive files between each other — for example, the results of large-scale scientific research projects and experiments — so the network has to be able to cope with extremely high volumes of data and intelligently route data packets across the country as efficiently as possible. Implementing SDN-enabled programmatic controls has made this faster, easier and more reliable than ever before.

The principle is similar to that of a road network. Often, the most direct route will also be the most popular, resulting in traffic jams and, therefore, delays. In those circumstances, the sensible approach would be to take an alternative route, one that might be a longer distance but will allow you to travel faster. SDN gives the network the holistic viewpoint to make these sorts of decisions, by optimally directing data traffic across the entire infrastructure according to current usage levels.

Improved policy control
However, it is not just about getting data from A to B. By giving organisations greater control over every aspect of their networks, SDN will also make it possible for IT teams to design and implement effective security policies and controls.

Given the proliferation of mobile devices and BYOD schemes, policy-based networking is an increasingly popular way for organisations to control how users can access sensitive data or applications. For instance, a policy might be implemented so that the network will allow users to access work e-mails from a tablet or smartphone, but not the company’s CRM or payroll system. With traditional network architectures, these policies are vendor-specific and have to be configured for each element of a campus or local area network (LAN). The higher level of control enabled by SDN solves this problem; you simply have to configure a policy once and it can be applied automatically across the entire network.

SDN will deliver significant return on investment (ROI) for IT teams. Michael Kennedy, a principal analyst at ACG, has predicted that it could reduce total cost of ownership (TCO) for enterprise networks by up to 50%. He explains, “Most of the cost reduction is derived from the automation of operations and the centralisation of network control. In addition, further savings are realised from much faster service delivery and maintenance processes that reduce service intervals from weeks to minutes.”

Deloitte’s Chris Weitz echoes this, estimating that firms using SDN can save up to 50% on their networking bills, which on average will account for 10% to 15% of their IT budgets.

The adoption curve
SDN is still in very early stages, particularly in the Middle East. Although some early adopters are already seeing the benefits that SDN can bring, it is likely to take another few years for these technologies to be ready for widespread adoption.

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