”Software Defined Networking” or SDN is an emerging technology that allows for more granular control over a network’s data traffic streams. As this cutting-edge technology is expected to be adopted industry-wide within several years, understanding this technology and its importance to information technology (“IT”) functions is critical. SDN provides vast benefits to IT, and with its anticipated exponential growth, businesses are expected to increase their IT spending to incorporate this technology. To support this networking paradigm shift, new startups, as well as existing firms will enter this market to provide products and associated services to implement and manage SDN.
As an emerging technology, growth forecasts vary greatly, ranging from $3.7 billion in 2016 (IDC)1 to $3.1 billion in 2017 (Infonetics)2 to $5.41 billion in 2018 (Research and Markets)3 to a lofty $35 billion by 2018 (SDNCentral)4. Revenues from SDN-type products were estimated at $360 million in 20135, while the number of firms specializing in SDN has gone from zero in 2009 to 225 in 2013.6
This paper provides an overview of SDN, including what makes it so significant, defines important associated terms, applications and uses, and reviews its benefits and risks. The goal is to enable the reader to understand this complex technology, ascertain risks and controls, and have greater confidence when prospecting or working with clients in this space.
In its simplest form, SDN can be thought of as pulling the intelligence away from your networking hardware and centralizing it. Networking hardware consists generally of routers and switches that manage the flow of data across the network. It is making the networking equipment “dumber” but then creating a centralized control management system that makes the network as a whole far more intelligent. SDN is about separating the “control plane” from the “data or forwarding plane” and then centralizing the control plane.
SDN is the next phase of virtualization and to better understand its evolutionary process, a short history lesson in virtualization is helpful. This is summarized below and also explained in this YouTube video.7
As noted in these two examples, intelligence was separated from the underlying hardware device and a centralized system was created to control it. However, networks themselves (the systems that route the data between devices) continued to get bigger, faster and better but didn’t evolve as there was no compelling reason for networks to become more efficient. However due to the recent advent of cloud-based services, a viable reason now exists. SDN is the next evolutionary step for networking.
Network routers and switches are intelligent, meaning they can be programmed to manage the flow of data – to prioritize data flow based on data type, users, application or other requirements.
Why is prioritization important? Real-time communications data flow such as VoIP phone calls, streaming movies or IP-based video (TV, security cameras) require that the data packets travels from point A to B as quickly as possible – with minimal “jitter.” Jitter is a variation in the delay present between packets in such communication. If the delay is too large, packets may be dropped and affect the clarity of the communication. Any delays would cause a disruption in the communication or viewing. Another example includes certain applications that are time-sensitive such as those dealing with real-time financial or e-commerce data. Data from such applications would have greater priority than other applications.
On the other hand, file data such as emails, photos, etc. is not real time and would have less priority. These different priority levels are configured by IT into every router and switch within the network, allowing the network to operate efficiently and provide optimum service.
Data traffic flow within a network has always been important, but it became more so with the changes in traffic patterns. Data traffic has evolved from being static to being more dynamic.
The current routers and switches were designed for static data traffic and had static network architecture. Although they are configurable, they cannot be configured dynamically or on a real-time basis; it requires manual adjustments. With the new shift in computing workloads and data traffic, the routers and switches need the flexibility for dynamic configuration on a real-time basis. The current antiquated architecture needs to be overhauled, opening the door for SDN.
SDN is both a hardware and software solution. OpenFlow is an open communication protocol that was developed through the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) and its member companies. The physical routers and switches need to be SDN-enabled in order to work with an OpenFlow-based controller. OpenFlow-based controllers generally consist of a physical or virtual server with specialized software.
As this is an emerging technology, there are a few established providers and numerous startups – offering partial to complete SDN solutions. The established firms have an edge on the startups and it is likely that in the next few years, consolidation will occur in the SDN market, and only a few firms will emerge as key players.
Some of the established firms include familiar brands, such as Cisco, VMWare, Hewlett Packard, Juniper, IBM and others. Some startups include Nuage, PlumGRID, Midokura, Plexxi, and others. Many offer solutions using the ONF’s OpenFlow protocol while a few offer proprietary or hybrid solutions.
Enterprises that have dynamic large data traffic flows will be the first to embrace SDN as their new networking architecture, driven by the opportunity for efficiency – both performance and cost-based. These include data centers, cloud service providers and very large enterprises that have vast networks, and industries including banking/finance, government, telecommunications, IT services and education.
The benefits of incorporating SDN architecture for an enterprise network are substantial. These include:
With all technologies, there will be issues that affect how quickly it is adopted. Additionally, there are new risks created by this new technology. A few are discussed below:
SDN is fairly new and large volume implementations are two to three years in the future. Furthermore, there are currently various flavors of SDN (OpenFlow, proprietary and hybrid) but over time there will likely be more standardization. There are security concerns and uncertainties with SDN and these will need to be adequately addressed. However, based on the important productivity and economic benefits that SDN can provide to enterprises and IT departments, it is clearly an emerging technology with enormous potential that will see significant growth in the future. Growth in the market will result in additional vendors, including startups, entering this highly lucrative space, ultimately providing even more benefits than those anticipated at this stage.
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1 Duffy, Jim (November 12, 2013). “SDDCs doubling every year.” Networkworld. Accessed May 2014. http://www.networkworld.com/article/2225873/cisco-subnet/sddcs-doubling-every-year.html
2 Grossner, Clifford (December 9, 2013). “2014 Market size and forecast.” Infonetics. Accessed May 2014. http://www.infonetics.com/pr/2013/Data-Center-and-SDN-Market-Highlights.asp
3 Ibid 1
4 Palmer, Matthew (April 24, 2013). “Infographic: SDN market size to reach $35billion by 2018.” SDNCentral. Accessed May 2014. http://www.sdncentral.com/infographic-sdn-market-to-reach-35b-by-2018/
5 Ibid 1
6 Ibid 4
7 YouTube Video on Introduction to SDN - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BJyIIIYU8E
8 Open Networking Foundation (April 13, 2012). “Software-Defined Networking: The New Norms for Networks.” Accessed May 2014. Page 3. https://www.opennetworking.org/images/stories/downloads/sdn-resources/white-papers/wp-sdn-newnorm.pdf
9 Ibid 9, page 4
11 Open Networking Foundation (October 8, 2013). “SDN Security Consideration in the Data Center.” Accessed May 2014. https://www.opennetworking.org/images/stories/downloads/sdn-resources/solution-briefs/sb-security-data-center.pdf
12 McGillicuddy, Shamus. (February 14, 2014). “SDN security issues: How secure is the SDN stack?” TechTarget. Accessed May 2014. http://searchsdn.techtarget.com/news/2240214438/SDN-security-issues-How-secure-is-the-SDN-stack
13 Ibid 12