March 10, 2015

There was a well-known essay by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen published in The Wall Street Journal in 2011 in which he claimed that software is “eating the world.”

It's a useful and colourful image, and gives a sense of the extent to which software influences technology.

While Andreessen's essay focused mostly on Silicon Valley startups, software continues to impact businesses across the board and around the globe. In addition to its role in consumer-facing applications and services, software is hard at work behind the scenes, and even influences how data centres operate.

Let's start with virtualisation. Virtualisation was a big change for data centre operators since it automated and streamlined server provisioning. However, virtualisation didn't truly modernize network and storage infrastructure for the next wave of business challenges stemming from technologies like cloud computing. Virtualisation is focused entirely on compute/server workload and doesn't concern itself with virtualizing network or storage. Fully deployed virtualisation (virtual machines, or VMs) didn't change traditional networking or storage strategies.

Enter software-defined networking (SDN), a concept that brings the flexibility and economy of software to data centre hardware.

SDN in the data centre: Sustainable support for tomorrow's applications
SDN is essentially a way of making a network programmable by decoupling control from the underlying hardware and assigning it instead to a software-based controller. To that end, protocols likeOpenFlow have been pivotal in the evolution of SDN, since they are open standards that are not tied to any particular gear or vendor.

Accordingly, a network designed for SDN can be both flexible and vendor-neutral, which benefits data centre operators, network operators, customers, and end users alike. With SDN, updating a policy or optimizing for a particular application is a matter of programming the software, rather than buying a new appliance or wrangling with a proprietary physical interface[i].

What are SDN benefits? Imagine the types of applications that have become viable only in the last few years, such as high-definition (HD) video and audio streaming as well as cloud-based productivity suites. These solutions are high-bandwidth and dynamic, meaning that they may sometimes require large amounts of resources that traditional, static networks can't reliably deliver.

More specifically, here are five key benefits that SDN offers in the data centre:

  1. Dealing with big data: Organizations are keen to comb through large data sets using parallel processing, but doing so requires ample bandwidth. SDN can help by more effectively managing throughput and connectivity.
  2. Supporting cloud-based traffic: The rise of the cloud is one of the biggest trends in IT and telecom. Cloud is predicated on the idea of on-demand capacity and self-service, which SDN can dynamically deliver based on demand and availability of resources within the data centre.
  3. Managing traffic to many IP addresses and virtual machines: SDN allows for dynamic routing tables so that routing prioritization can be achieved based on real-time network feedback, making control of virtual machines simpler to manage[ii].
  4. Making infrastructure scalable and agile: Using SDN, devices can be more easily added to the network, lowering the risk of service interruption. At the same time, SDN better fits the parallel processing and dungaree design of virtualized networks.
  5. Managing policy and security: SDN can be used to more efficiently and effectively propagate security policies throughout the network, including firewalling devices and other essential elements.

With these benefits in mind, it makes sense that SDN in the data centre is gaining traction. A recentreport by SNS Research estimates that the SDN, Network Functions Virtualisation (a developing technology aimed at virtualizing components in a service provider network), and network virtualisation market will account for $10 billion of revenue in 2015, with an anticipated compound annual growth rate of 37% over the next 6 years. This estimate combines all types of SDN, including data centres, enterprise IT, and service provider network virtualisation.

Hope these thoughts on SDN are helpful as you are thinking about your data centre strategy. Of course, we at Digital Realty stand ready to assist you with designing, developing and delivering data centre solutions that are agile, flexible, and adaptable to the evolution of your IT strategy, whether it includes SDN or not.

Ping me on Twitter or send us your thoughts via email to continue the conversation.

– Donough Roche, VP Sales Engineering (@donough)



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