Getting to grips with Software Defined Networks

Over the past ten years we have seen the idea develop that logical servers (the management abstraction that optimises the provisioning and re-provisioning of servers) can be decoupled from the physical hardware.

Known as “Software Defined Networks” (SDNs), it is an idea that has been integrated into relatively few organisations. However, it is set to explode within the next few years and is without doubt the next big step in the enterprise technology sector with the potential to make networks much more flexible.

What is a SDN?

The idea behind an SDN is to move a network away from being very hardware focused by running it as a logical service. While hardware is still important and has become increasingly more reliable, the business intelligence is in software and logical services?

An SDN works by utilising more complex software that manipulates the way data is transmitted within the network. Via a management portal, the network service is divorced from the network infrastructure and is agnostic of the individual hardware components. A separate layer of software is effectively slotted in between the hardware having to receive data, and the software that controls it, which allows more servers and products to take advantage of the network. That is, as long as they adhere to the OpenFlow standard - the protocol which allows the divorce of the logical service from the physical infrastructure.

What are the benefits?

A network service that is divorced from the network infrastructure means that businesses can have a multi-vendor network environment, driving down the cost of network operations. Once you have a logical service view of your console and a holistic view of the network, this enables optimisation for long-term capacity, the improvement of end-user experience and the modelling of traffic flows and what-if analyses.

In addition to cost reductions, from a CIO perspective SDNs have the opportunity to reduce network complexity, to enable customers to optimise the capacity and user experience of their network and enable them to be agile and flexible. It also allows them to respond to what the implications are on network behaviour when bringing on new applications.

What do CIOs need to think about before moving to an SDN?

CIOs thinking about SDNs need to take a look at their legacy networks and make sure their network infrastructure from a hardware perspective supports OpenFlow. It is indeed possible that the market will shift quickly, SDNs could be mainstream within the next three to five years, so I would advise CIOs to examine the lifespan of their current network and carefully evaluate their purchasing decisions. If they are thinking of buying any more network infrastructure it should ideally support the OpenFlow protocol at some point in the future. This will have a massive impact on the networking hardware market, and combined with austere budget cuts, it makes sense that CIOs will begin favouring cheaper hardware that runs more complicated software.

The issue however when implementing an SDN is not the price, but whether end user IT teams have the understanding, experience and the skillsets required to manage these networks. If not, then CIOs need to look to acquiring a managed network service that has the expertise and capabilities for dealing with SDNs.

Andy Wood is Director of Collaboration & Managed Services at Kcom. He is responsible for financial performance, strategy, general operational efficiency and best practice. His expertise is wide ranging and Andy provides thought leadership, vision and direction for the consultancy part of the business. Part of Andy’s role is to keep pace with industry direction and trends as well as new technologies and help drive innovation across the leadership practices and with customers.

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