December 14, 2013

Making networking work for you

Making networking work for you

Networking is often the last thing to be considered when upgrading an entire environment, but, with the growth in virtualisation, this is a potential pitfall, as networks today now have to contend with the far greater demands being placed upon them.

Often when companies upgrade disk space, servers or other infrastructure, the network is the last consideration. Instead, to avoid potentially costly problems, the network should be considered early in the process.

There are two, key pain points regarding networking. The first is the time to actually deliver an application. While it’s possible to deploy a new server in minutes, to get the network component ready to handle that server can take weeks, so time to readiness of environment or application is closely tied to the network.

The second pain point comes with the growth in unified collaboration, desktop video conferencing and other new technologies that are putting unprecedented strain on networks.

Thankfully the networking world is beginning to wake up to these pitfalls, so the next wave of developments in IT technology will likely be on the network side. The face of networking will change quickly as companies shift to software-defined networking (SDN).

At the moment, a typical network device has a hardware component and built-in software, right out of the box. It’s necessary to manually configure every device in the network path, which is both time consumer and means that if you move that environment or applications it has to be reconfigured.

SDN leverages developments in virtualisation technology and has worked at removing the control and intelligence from individual boxes so devices become a commodity with control located higher up. This goes a long way to alleviating time-to-readiness concerns.

Now servers in different locations running applications can be configured with a few clicks and the changes will be pushed to the devices. This has the potential to be a genuine game changer, and let’s networking catch up with related technologies that had, until recently, been outpacing it.

This ability to remotely configure devices as needed, and manage them from afar, could also change the role of the traditional network engineer who previously had to be on the box to work. Many engineers may find their role changing to that of network technicians, overseeing networks from a central location and spending less time on site.

Another benefit of SDN is the network-aware applications for which it allows. If I want to deploy an IP telephony solution, that app has certain demands from a network perspective, including quality of service requirements and prioritising voice ahead of data because of its time sensitivity. At present devices need to have these parameters set manually. With network-aware solution, the network can make the necessary changes when an element is added to meet its needs.

What virtualisation has done for the server environment — whereby applications are no longer dependent on hardware — SDN will do for networking.

One of the key benefits of SDN for the end-user is that it allows for hardware agnosticism. Vendors might not like like it, but it’s great for end-users who needn’t be tied to one system and can add to their existing infrastructure from a wider selection of hardware options. While standardisation used to be important because each device was managed differently, SDN makes a multi-vendor strategy possible. This is appealing for customers because it allows them to spread their risk across multiple vendors.

This bring us to the challenge of effectively assessing a network solutions provider. Some of the key considerations are the provider’s skills, certifications and proven ability to execute. Another is their position as a “trusted advisor”. That is, does the provider know how the industry is changing and can they offer sound advice accordingly?

A good network solutions provider will also try and make minimal changes to existing systems, rather than looking for sales at all costs, and will be sufficiently knowledgeable to help a client prepare for SDN. If you are buying hardware now you need to buy devices that support SDN.

How swift will adoption of SDN be? That depends on the company. For large enterprises with huge networks and infrastructure that doesn’t support SDN adoption will only take place as and when they refresh their hardware. The benefits for big corporates, however, are obvious, especially from management perspective. Some may argue they have centralised management already, but changes still have to be made on the individual devices themselves. SDN in a large environment allows you to change once, but deploy to many.

The result is greater network agility and flexibility, and the cost savings that come with it. For smaller companies, adoption will most likely be both easier and faster. Regardless of the size of your company and network, SDN isn’t theory any more; it’s here, and it’s going to change the face of networking forever.

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