October 14, 2013

The future of networking? SDN

More often than not, when it comes to upgrading an IT environment the network component is the last thing companies look at. With the advent of storage, server and other forms of virtualisation that’s potentially a major pitfall as networks today can’t keep up with the demand put on them by new technologies.

Networking should be considered early in any upgrade process because it is often the cause of delays in actually delivering an application. While one can deploy a new server in minutes, to get the network component up and running to handle that server can take weeks.

Moreover, new developments like unified collaboration, video conferencing to desktops and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) are putting strain on networks. Software-Defined Networking (SDN) promises to alleviate some of these problems and makes it all the more important that networking be considered early on.

Networking, and SDN in particular, represents the next phase in IT technology’s development. Currently, a typical network device has a hardware component along with built-in software, and engineers need to manually configure every device on the network. Not only is this time consuming, but moving or changing elements means having to reconfigure the hardware.

SDN, which leverages virtualisation technology, removes the control and intelligence from the hardware, making the device a commodity with control situated higher up. This means the network component of a solution can be configured remotely with a few clicks of a mouse and be available on all network devices within minutes, thus alleviating time-to-readiness concerns. It means networks may, at last, catch up with other technologies.

With SDN a network administrator can make network requirements available on all devices on the fly. That’s a game changer. SDN also means the role of the network engineer may change in ways that are currently difficult to predict.

In addition to improved delivery times and enhanced flexibility another benefit of SDN is the “application-aware networking ” it allows. For example, when putting an IP (Internet Protocol) telephony solution in place certain demands — from a network perspective — need to be met. To ensure quality of service, voice needs to be prioritised ahead of data because unlike data it’s time sensitive. Currently, devices need to be manually instructed to do so. In an application-aware environment the network can make the necessary requirements available on all devices automatically when an element is added or removed.

What virtualisation has done for the server environment — where applications are no longer dependent on the hardware used — SDN will do to networking by allowing elements to be rapidly added, altered or removed.

There are also a range of benefits for end users. One of these is that SDN removes the need for standardised hardware. That is, networks will become hardware agnostic.

While this may not please vendors, it’s good news for end users who are increasingly adopting a “multi-vendor strategy” to spread their risk by not relying on a single vendor for every network component.

Whatever your network strategy, it’s crucial to assess the skills, certification and ability to execute of any network service provider. Further, a good service provider will be able to offer sound advice that takes into consideration trends in the industry, looks to offer the most future-proof solutions, and doesn’t make unnecessary changes to existing infrastructure or systems for the sake of a sale.

Looking at adoption, it’s going to be difficult for larger companies with huge networks that don’t support SDN to make the transition to it. However, if they are in the process of refreshing their networks, SDN-readiness is imperative because it’s these large companies that stand to benefit the most from it.

Some might argue they already have centralised network management in the form of system diagnostics and monitoring tools, but changes still have to be made manually on individual devices. In a large environment, SDN allows one to “change once while deploying to many” in minutes. It also means the network can adopt configuration requirements as a whole, regardless of underlying hardware. That means increased network agility and flexibility and less time spent on site.

SDN is going to change networking forever. Shouldn’t you be prepared for it?

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