Software Defined Networking: Disruptive Innovation

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Software-defined networking (SDN) has moved from an academic concept to one that drew jeers to one that is now drawing cheers … all in a matter of two years. While some came kicking and screaming to the party, others embraced it headlong. The tipping point has been a few key seminal events:

  • The formation of Open Networking Foundation (ONF) in March which was actively led by industry thought leaders and let momentum to an effort that was until then primarily academic.
  • Public presentation by Google at the Open Networking Summit (ONS) in April 2012 that its internal data center network (called “G-Scale”) is managed using SDN/OpenFlow.
  • An announcement from Internet2 earlier this week that the first 100G open, nationwide Software-Defined Network would be built based on network infrastructure from Brocade and Juniper.

Announcements from industry innovators such as Google and Internet2 naturally garner a lot of attention because they are proving that SDN is far more ready than what many had thought. And may I add, they are not just doing it in a small contained environment but in a very big way!

This naturally begs the question– so, what is the true benefit of SDN? Is it capex reduction? Is it opex reduction? It is about rebalancing power between buyer and supplier? Yes, yes, yes and more.

As growth rate of network bandwidth and IT budgets increasingly diverges, the focus invariably changes to increasing both efficiency and effectiveness of assets. Efficiency of assets, i.e. asset utilization takes on a new meaning. Effectiveness is measured by the flexibility available to redeploy assets on the fly and resulting service velocity, i.e. shortening time to revenue. The assets in question could be compute, storage, network or even software. Naturally, large-scale increases in such efficiency/effectiveness can only be achieved with automation and rethinking previously held beliefs. And that is where SDN promises a path that has not been systemically tread as an industry-wide initiative. While there have been efforts to have proprietary interfaces in the past from various vendors, none have been truly interoperable/interchangeable across various vendor platforms.

Nor has there ever been an attempt before to unbundle control plane from the data plane in a network device and break the monolithic “closed” architecture. By taking the first steps towards creating that “programmable” interface, OpenFlow aspires to do what other technologies have not been able to do so far.

Why now?

2 simple reasons: The confluence of Big data and collaboration is creating a double whammy.

  • If Google were an Internet service provider, it would rank as one of the top ISPs in the world.  Your YouTube video might not be too large by itself but aggregated over millions of consumers via social media does create choke points for large Internet aggregators.
  • Similarly, Internet2 provides a network that is earnestly needed by researchers in data intensive science. Think physics, human genomics, weather forecasting, astronomy, … As if the data sets from these researchers were not large enough, the need to collaborate among researchers exacerbates the need for change.

Looking ahead

Like any emerging technology, SDN is still in its infancy. Yet, it would be foolish to mistake that infancy for lack of promise. Skeptics would be well advised to read The Innovators Dilemma! IT administrators need to start planning today to prepare for an SDN-ready paradigm.

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