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Why SDN will change your network forever
Tue, 8th Dec 2015
FYI, this story is more than a year old

What's hogging the technology headlines today? Mostly big data, cloud computing and mobility. But there's one item conspicuous in its absence and that's Software Defined Networking. Although relatively low-profile, SDN is a force which many in the industry reckon will change your network – and indeed your business – forever.

Strong words indeed. The enthusiasm is coming from vendors which include HP, Cisco, NEC, Intel… actually, you name them, and they're likely to be part of of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). That's an industry body dedicated to the promotion and adoption of SDN through open standards development. Among the obvious members – a veritable who's who of the networking industry – are some odd ones out; investment banking powerhouse Goldman Sachs, for example.

The level of interest is there because SDN promises to do to the network what cloud computing has done for applications: make them more flexible, more efficient and lower cost. And, of course, the network plays a rather central role in facilitating access to data and everything that comes with it.

Just how that is achieved also bears some similarities to cloud computing. SDN, the ONF tells us, is the physical separation of the network control plane from the forwarding plane, and where a control plane controls several devices. In simpler terms, it is a decoupled architecture – an abstraction which, it is claimed (by ONF), means an architecture that is dynamic, manageable, cost-effective and adaptable, ‘making it ideal for the high-bandwidth, dynamic nature of today's applications'.

That might sound like a good deal of techno mumbo jumbo. While the sort of stuff to excite network engineers, those signing the cheques have a more prosaic interest: why should money be spent on SDN?

The bottom line starts to add up because SDN promises advantages such as improved service provisioning, in terms of speed and agility. Setting up an SDN could be as straightforward a task as it is to set up a virtual machine: a few clicks of the mouse. Network flexibility to match ever-shifting business needs is always going to be a crowd-pleaser, at least for dynamic businesses. The ability to experiment on the network without making physical changes (and without risk) is also attractive.

Further advantages include the promise of better security, particularly where virtual machines are concerned. And just like cloud computing, throwing in a bit of abstraction carries with it the promise of efficiency and the associated cost gains and improved resource use.

Because SDNs are by definition open standards-based, the yoke of vendor lock-in is also cast off. Add any old hardware (perhaps not quite – the qualifier is actually ‘any new hardware from an ONF-aligned vendor') and it should work with what you've got in there already.

Excited? You probably should be. But of course, before SDN will transform your network and help you earn the respect of the suits in the executive suite, it has a long way to go. Kurt Marko, the author of a recent InformationWeek report titled ‘5 SDN Business Benefits', quoted in Network Computing, puts it like this: “Don't try to construct an ROI spreadsheet for SDN yet; any financial model will necessarily be based on assumptions bordering on SWAGs [scientific wild-ass guesses]. But do realize that SDN is no passing fad.

In other words, expect to hear a lot about SDN as it makes its way along the Gartner Hype Cycle – and get it on your radar.