IBM and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) have introduced new technologies that will immerse fans in the action at the 2012 US Open tennis tournament. During the two-week event, IBM will apply its predictive analytics, cloud computing and mobile technology expertise to connect tennis fans — no matter where they are — to what's happening on the courts at the US Tennis Center in New York.
/Is Your Data Centre Ready For SDN?/

As the cloud era takes shape, the role of technology is shifting. The rising number of applications, expanding connectivity requirements and the integration of cloud platforms are changing the entire IT model and embedding technology deeper into product and service delivery.

The data centre is now the manufacturing floor of the information era. And, just like a manufacturing facility, its efficiency lies in its ability to adapt and scale to the changing demands of the business while operating as leanly as possible.

With server and application stacks already in the throes of transformation, industry experts are touting Software-Defined Networks (SDN) as the next step in the data centre’s evolution. IDC estimates the software-defined networking market to be worth about $3.7 billion by 2016, more than a tenfold increase from the $360 million in 2013.

The need for real-time information, combined with rapid data growth, is dramatically changing the volume, nature, and predictability of network traffic patterns—placing new demands on network infrastructure. Legacy network platforms were not designed for the increasingly data-driven world we are in today and it is only natural for organisations to look towards a software-defined future.

SDN provides tremendous potential to drive the next generation of IT services but the technology is still in its infancy and incorporates a number of standards and technology approaches. The challenge facing network operators today is to be able incorporate the most innovative, cutting edge capabilities while avoiding the type of ‘bleeding-edge’ pains that premature adoption of new technologies can bring.

Making SDN A Reality

There are now three main approaches for those who are considering implementing SDN. The first, the OpenFlow standard, originated from the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) in 2010 and provides a secure communications protocol that enables remote programming of data plane functions in switches.

Many switch vendors have been implementing support for this standard within their data plane architectures, while a few are building centralized control plane software to bring their switch management together in one place. The second SDN approach is being driven by virtualisation companies like VMware and Microsoft and is based on a hypervisor-based network virtualisation model usually referred to as NVO (network virtualisation overlay).

In this model, much like server virtualisation, the introduction of virtual switches allows an organisation to run multiple virtual networks on a single physical network, while each virtual network retains the characteristics of running as a physical network. The third approach encompasses a programmable framework where individual switches retain their control plane functions yet through an Application Programming Interface (API), allow control of the switch’s local data plane functions.

All of these are valid approaches to SDN and with a holistic framework companies can take a blended, hybrid approach to SDN instead of pursuing, and being locked into, one single course. Like other significant transitions in data centre networking (such as IPv4 to IPv6), the migration to SDN will occur in phases and will share space with current technologies for some time which means interoperability will be the key word.

How SDN Fits In

SDN is also not, in itself, the Holy Grail; it is a key piece in the data center evolution puzzle with the ultimate goal being an entirely integrated, software defined data centre that incorporates networking, servers and storage.

The performance improvements, simplified management and cost efficiencies that a complete software-defined infrastructure would bring to your organisation further emphasises the importance of adopting a flexible and open path to SDN integration to simplify and save on IT implementation in the long run as well as for the immediate networking benefits.

It is also important not to get blinded in a rush to adopt SDN, as to what your priorities are; the value of SDN isn’t necessarily in establishing the best control plane but in the management of your workloads and determining which workloads run best on what networking devices. With a re-evaluation and optimisation of your workloads through SDN adoption, you can shift your value chain significantly to maximise the value and potential of your data centre.

The final element to consider with SDN is the long-term impact it will have on hardware costs. Currently, SDN is deployed in a manner which transforms the agility of network programmability – which involves the operational element and the OPEX – rather than reduces the actual demands your processes makes on the networking hardware, meaning your hardware costs will not decrease with adoption.

However, as software-defined infrastructure becoming more prevalent in the enterprise space, the emphasis on vendors to make their hardware more cost effective will grow, especially if customers have taken an open approach in their adoption rather than constrict themselves to a single path or vendor.

So when evaluating SDN solutions, an organisation should always consider that:

  • The ideal solutions should offer a simple yet evolutionary path from existing legacy networking technologies to SDN. This means that the approach should offer flexibility to choose SDN technologies and phase them in gradually, eliminating expensive forklift upgrades and complex integration by instead creating a hybrid environment. It is also important that SDN can be activated one port at a time in a controlled and monitored manner.
  • Products should offer interoperability by being based on open standards with vendors having ongoing participation in SDN standards-driving groups like the ONF and Object Management Group (OMG) and close partnerships with NVO vendors like Microsoft and VMware.
  • SDN is one step in journey to a software-defined data centre. Seek advice from trusted providers who can provide strategic support on immediate deployments of SDN as well as longer term data centre strategies.

Increasing demands from users, advanced applications and sophisticated workloads will continue to challenge organisations. It’s a natural step in the evolution of networking to shift towards virtualisation environments like SDN to help keep up and hopefully stay ahead of these challenges. The good news is there are solutions available today and experienced providers that can help you start the journey.