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Software Defined Networking (SDN) is growing in popularity

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August 5, 2015

Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) are increasing in popularity, and the trend appears to be growing.

In fact, the overall interest around SDN is growing even faster than the hype would indicate, and this is having some unexpected effects in certain segments of the IT industry.

Understandably, some networking vendors are cautious about SDN and NFV, as both of these new trends threaten to commoditize a very lucrative area of IT infrastructure.

Large players are often willing to devote some effort in reducing any startup that looks to be gaining any mindshare as they are developing solutions internally. And we sure can't blame them for that.

As a result, the hype around the next generation of networking technologies is actually more dampened than it would be for almost any other technology.

We have previously described SDN as the ability to rapidly detect and adapt to changes in network infrastructure. Similarly, NFV is the ability to stand up, tear down, automate and orchestrate network elements in some easy-to-use manner.

Network elements can include switches, routers, firewalls, Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS), monitoring, port mirroring and even entire clusters of virtual or physical server instances.

Understanding why SDN and NFV are raising eyebrows requires bringing things down to a scale that matters to normal companies.

While some system admins might show some resistance to the concept, the SDN/NFV ideal that everyday system administrators find appealing is ease of use.

For too long, switches have been brittle and inflexible, driven by unnecessarily complicated configurations and command-line interfaces.

And let's face it, graphical interfaces have been shockingly poor and frequently only give you the ability to manipulate one switch at a time.

Those that do offer the ability to co-ordinate multiple switches tend to cost top dollar and still not be all that good.

Applications, operating systems, hypervisors and even the lights-out management systems in modern servers today are frequently something that can be easily scripted.

Seemingly everything has an API now and you can do wonders with little nothing more than XML or JSON.

The direct result of all this is that management tools have exploded in diversity. If you want to manage an application, OS, hypervisor or server there's probably an easier-to-use solution than the one you're using now.

And if you want to automate some or all of it, there are several ways to go about it. This doesn't exist in the legacy networking world.

What doesn't exist is the ability to work with multiple switches and routers from multiple vendors without worrying about the underlying hardware.

Install a hypervisor on a list of servers and it doesn't really matter if they're Dell, HP or Supermicro. If the CPUs are of different generations, there are workarounds available.

With minimal effort you can lash any collection of servers together into a workable virtualisation cluster. And it should work, in most cases.

All of this could be doable without adding in the magic special sauce of SDN and NFV, but they make everything so much better.

Instead of simply having a workable multi-node management interface on "good enough" switches, we get the ability to combine automation of our switches with automation of NFV.

The switches work in concert with everything from VMware's NSX to Openstack's Neutron without any issues.

A change in virtualization software that brings up a new service can trigger changes in the virtual switches as well as the hardware switches, can stand up NFV assets and generally take what was a couple of hours' worth of work for a network admin and make it happen in a second or two.

Legacy switching vendors could have headed SDN off by simply adapting their existing offerings to be more user friendly, but they didn't.

The change in networking is happening today as you are reading this. Smaller organizations are finding that SDN equipment offers them better access to tools and various capabilities they would otherwise not have been able to afford simply because that networking equipment was too costly.

Service providers are adopting SDN because doing anything at that scale without it doesn't make sense economically. It still remains to be seen how long legacy switching vendors can hold out by clinging to the upper mid-market and the enterprise segment.

Source: Gartner.

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