Software-Defined Networking Puts Network Managers in the Driver's Seat

SDNs can help organizations keep up with evolving network demands in an app-centric IT environment and give network managers much more flexibility.

The strategy behind the network architecture inside many of today’s data centers was developed during the x86 era of server-desktop computing. Much has changed since then, and organizations must now give serious thought to a fresh approach to networking — software defined networking (SDN) — that more accurately reflects today’s computing reality.

“For 32 years, the network has been managed via command line on a switch-by-switch basis,” says Rita Younger, CDW’s national practice lead for application-centric infrastructure and SDN. Technology has changed dramatically, yet many organizations still provision and manage their networks as they always have. “Moving to an SDN model, we have the ability to manage the network as a fabric, from a single point, and with all of the benefits that come with it,” Younger says.

SDN provides a rare opportunity for innovation and more customer choice, says Jeff Baher, executive director of Dell Networking. “The legacy of closed networking has prevented the emergence of a robust independent networking software industry,” he notes. The proprietary nature of the networking ecosystem stifles the tremendous innovation potential offered by open ecosystems. “SDN presents an innovative approach to solving key networking challenges,” he says.

SDN Lets Organizations Manage Networks Dynamically 

As virtualization, cloud computing and mobility advancements lead to increasingly complex data center environments, networks must be able to adapt in terms of security, scalability and manageability. Yet most organizations’ networks still depend on fixed boxes and appliances, both of which demand a great deal of manual administration. Adapting or expanding these networks for new capabilities, applications or users requires reconfiguration that demands both time and money.

SDN technology creates an abstraction layer that effectively separates network intelligence and configuration from physical connections and hardware. This approach allows programmatic control over both physical and virtual network devices that can dynamically respond to changing network conditions using OpenFlow or some other programmable and controllable packet/flow processing protocol.

SDN places significantly more control in the operator’s hands, Baher says. “There is much more to choose from now in terms of both hardware and software,” he notes. “Simply put, it brings many more capabilities to the network and to the role of networking within IT operations.”

Growth in the IT space relies heavily on network programmability, says Lori MacVittie, principal technical expert at F5 Networks. “While SDN was initially favored by hyperscale data centers, its agility, flexibility and programmability have led it to become an increasingly crucial asset for enterprises looking to optimize their network architectures,” she explains. “Additionally, the value of SDN will keep accruing, proving a more long-term value as more enterprises look to adopt cloud models.”

“The benefits of SDN include the option to configure the hardware via application programming interfaces, managing the fabric as a whole, which gives us faster provisioning, better troubleshooting and better, faster day-to-day management,” CDW’s Younger says. “Depending on the SDN vendor solution, benefits may include management of underlay and overlay, increased visibility into underlay and overlay, and the management of the physical and virtual Layers 4-7 within the SDN fabric.”

Traditional management methods — device-by-device and system-by-system using manual methods — are unable to scale at the rate necessary today, MacVittie says. “Automation via network programmability is a way in which businesses can improve time to market and reduce operating costs,” she adds.

How to Deploy SDN

Although SDN’s benefits are widely considered to be too big to ignore, new adopters still face challenges, particularly coping with cultural changes. “One example is that the figurative wall separating network operators and software developers needs to be toppled,” MacVittie says. “Network operators need coding skills, and software developers will need the ability to program networking services into their applications.”

SDN adoption also requires making a commitment to supporting open-source network solutions. “Much of what drives SDN is open-source, and dealing with that is something many businesses may not be prepared for,” MacVittie says.

Before moving toward an SDN installation, Younger recommends scheduling a planning and design workshop “with a partner who can dig in and ensure your data center is a good candidate and determine the migration plan.”

Baher agrees, noting that SDN adopters have many vendors and solutions to choose from. “Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of marketing hype and competing definitions,” he adds. “It’s extremely important to do your due diligence and research on the landscape.”

An SDN adopter should also know from the outset exactly what the network should be able to do, who it will serve and how it should perform. “The more specific you are, the better,” Baher says. “This will help you research and find the proper use cases for your environment.”

MacVittie is confident that momentum toward SDN will continue to build as organizations “simplify their networks and make them easier to manage, while also automating operations as much as possible.”

To learn more about how CDW’ solutions and services can help your organization fully optimize data center and enterprise networks, visit CDW.com/networking.

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Oct 07 2016