Where Do SDNs Fit in the Data Center?

As CIOs try to make sense of the hype surrounding software-defined networks (SDNs) and their potential in data centers, some experts and vendors say IT leaders are looking for answers in all the wrong places.

While most of the conversation about software-defined networks (SDNs) focuses on their impact on the data center -- virtualizing networks to cut hardware and personnel costs, reduce on-site footprints, remove bottlenecks and traffic flow problems and make network management easier -- the true benefit of SDNs may lie outside the data center.

software-defined networks

The true value of SDNs may be for managed service providers (MSPs) and for enterprises with multiple branch offices, says Kurt Marko, a networking consultant and analyst.

How SDNs Work

SDN technology removes the intelligence from traditional networking hardware and delegates network decision-making capabilities to the server, Marko says. The technology decouples the data layer (the actual information traveling on a network) from the control layer (the technology that determines how, when and where that information flows) to make independent control of each layer possible without expensive, complicated hardware and software (i.e., routers and switches and the professionals that manage them).

Marko says that most of this network control and management technology already exists, and is currently being used by large enterprises in the data center. Enterprise networks are built in such a way that they currently provide high switching capacity between systems (what's known as east-west traffic flow) and to outside gateways (what's known as north-south), Marko says.

Even if enterprises aren't currently using high-capacity, efficient solutions, they're most certainly considering it or are in the process of deploying high-performance and high capacity networks in the data center.

So, if that's the case, why all the hype? Some of it really is just that -- hype, Marko says, as everyone tries to jump on the bandwagon and cash in on the newest, hottest acronym bandied around in IT circles, even though it may not make sense for some enterprises. And some of it is simply confusion about how networks function and how SDN technology can benefit highly trafficked networks.

When and Where SDNs Make Sense

SDNs, Marko says, have great potential to speed up networks that encounter highly variable traffic, like retail sites that may see seasonal or sale-related spikes in traffic, sites that are video- or audio-heavy.

SDNs are also particularly well-suited for MSPs that handle customers' networks, since those customers may have unpredictable traffic increases or decreases, he says.

"It's unclear right now how valuable SDN will be to the typical enterprise data center," Marko says. "What is more clear is the technology's value for service providers and big cloud providers because their network traffic can be much more variable and unpredictable depending on what kinds of data are running over them, what types of applications are used and what types of end-user profiles they see," Marko says.

"In an enterprise data center, however, the network traffic tends to be more uniform and stable. There's not so much of a high variability in the load, and they're already built to handle any big traffic spikes and react to those automatically," he says.

Where SDN has more potential in the enterprise is to replace network application hardware like load balancers, firewalls and other hardware that handles higher-level networking issues instead of individual packets of traffic, he says.

Targeting an Underserved Market

That's why Netsocket is specifically targeting its SDN technology to highly distributed enterprises, cloud providers and MSPs, says Netsocket COO Trisha Hosek, while other vendors focus on the data center market.

"Most folks are starting this in the data center, and while, yes, our technology has all the tools to natively interface with legacy networks on-site and in the data center, we decided not to play there at first. Where we are going to focus is the enterprise branch space, with highly distributed networks, because we felt this was an underserved area," Hosek says.

The company's vNetCommander is part of the Netsocket Virtual Network (NVN) solution, a centralized management software suite released in July 2013. The VNetCommander is designed to handle automated deployment, installation, configuration and orchestration of virtualized networks from a centralized console, says Dave Corley, Netsocket product marketing manager.

But Netsocket's NVN solution isn't just for enterprises, Corley says. SMBs with virtualized networks can also use the product to reap the cost-savings and efficiency benefits, he says, and the company released a free version of the NVN that can be used for smaller deployments, or for enterprises that want to start small.

"If you're a distributed enterprise with lots of remote locations, an MSP or an SMB with customers all over the place, there's a lot of overhead involved in rolling trucks to install, deploy and orchestrate networks, not to mention any on-site management," Corley says.

However, Hosek adds, customers can use the NVN's centralized orchestration capabilities to design, configure, download, install and interconnect their entire network from a centralized site.

"Instead of having your IT crew be on-site, sometimes for days, to install, configure, and deploy a network using a command-line interface, you can have anyone with a conceptual knowledge of networking design a network from a central location and push those requirements from a generic, commodity, X86 server," Hosek says.

That's a major value proposition for a CIO, Corley says, since hiring and training skilled networking pros can be costly. The skillsets required for deploying and maintaining a traditional network are both high-level and detailed, and often require pricey certifications like Cisco's CCIE and CCNA, Corley says.

Not only are there a limited number of available workers with these skills, but most already are employed. But Netsocket's NVN all but removes the need for these kinds of skills, he says.

It remains to be seen if SDNs will have as huge an impact on the data center as server virtualization did, even though the hype is large and the buzz is loud. For now, it makes sense for CIOs to focus their time, energy and attention on areas where technology could more make an immediate impact.

Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at sflorentine@cio.com Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.

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