17 Jul 2014

Software-defined networking: data centre networks game changer

Stu Benington, Director SDN / Cloud Business Unit at Coriant discusses the growing emphasis on cloud, Big Data, IoT and mobility driving organizations to manage traffic growth and server visualization.

Day by day, the evolving connectivity needs of both businesses and consumers are creating mounting pressures on service providers’ traditional business models and increasingly exposing the limitations of traditional static transport architectures.

These include rising demand for network capacity to satisfy bandwidth-intensive end-user applications, increasingly unpredictable traffic patterns and usage spikes and, most importantly, the transformational architecture shift toward a cloud-centric networking environment.

To meet these challenges, service providers in both developed and emerging markets are turning to one of the industry’s most promising technologies – software-defined networking (SDN). While still in a formative stage from an implementation perspective in the wide-area network (compared to server and storage virtualization in the data centre), SDN will play a critical role in enabling service providers to create a more efficient, agile, and scalable transport infrastructure capable of meeting the demands of cloud-centric connectivity.

SDN equipment

Indeed, while service providers have been exploring these concepts for a number of years, 2014 is shaping up to be a watershed for SDN as more operators make the move from research and lab trials to field trials and implementation in their networks. A recent Infonetics carrier survey revealed that 29% of respondents claimed that they are currently implementing SDNs, and 52% indicated that they plan to evaluate SDNs by the end of 2014. In terms of revenue, the market is expected to reach $3.6 billion by 2019, according to a MarketsandMarkets research report, while IDC is more bullish and estimates that SDN will be a $3.7 billion market by 2016.

But what separates SDN from other technologies that promised much but failed to transform businesses?

On-demand elasticity for a new networked world

As end users shift toward a cloud-centric world and traffic patterns in the wide area become more unpredictable, service-provider networks need to mirror the on-demand flexibility, scalability and programmability of data centre compute and storage resources. The requirement is not just to make the network more efficient; it’s to fundamentally change the network paradigm and create an application-centric service delivery model capable of on-demand agility, flexible performance parameters and seamless scalability. This need is compounded by the emergence of technologies such as network functions virtualization (NFV) that enable applications and network appliances to be distributed closer to the end user and leverage commercial off-the-shelf hardware.

SDN implementation represents an opportunity for service providers to innovate in new ways, while fully leveraging the value of existing assets, including their network resources, networking expertise and investments in the network brand.

Enabling service transformation

Many businesses are already preparing for SDN by deploying Ethernet fabrics, adding to the robustness and flexibility of their networks. As service providers transform existing network resources and architectures, there are a number of key network attributes that need to be addressed:

  • Programmability   The fastest way to introduce and change services is to make the network more programmable – in other words, make it fully adaptable to the changing needs of end users, network operators and the applications themselves. Software-defined programmability and automation of network resources will enable service providers to unlock new service revenue opportunities (e.g. transport as a service, bandwidth-on-demand, scheduled bandwidth etc.), adapt to real time network changes (e.g. virtual machine migration), reduce overall network complexity, and use network resources more efficiently at the lowest cost.

  • End-to-end multilayer integration   As end-user services and applications increasingly move to private and public cloud networks, the need for agile and efficient integration of compute and storage resources across multiple geographies (e.g. access, metro, core) and protocol layers (e.g. wavelength, Optical Transport Network, Ethernet, IP/MPLS) becomes increasingly important. SDN can play an important role in harmonizing capabilities across this broad range of resources and enabling a true end-to-end global view of the network.

  • Openness   Packet optical transport infrastructure networks by nature are multivendor and multi-technology and therefore depend on standards-based protocols to enable interoperability at the physical layer. The majority of current networks are built on 20-year-old legacy technology, which are often closed off and restrictive. SDN enables an unparalleled ability to administer multivendor networks and architectures with an open and collaborative software-based development process focused on end-user applications and optimized for enhanced-network programmability. An open SDN environment has huge potential for both users and operators. It can drive innovation at an unprecedented pace by enabling the easy introduction of new functions and applications written by network vendors, third-party developers and even the operators themselves.

  • Innovation   The ability to foster innovation along the lines just described is perhaps the most lucrative opportunity for an SDN-enabled network. As a further example, it’s possible to write abstracted applications for the network and apply them in a way that’s detached from specific vendors, protocols, or geographic environments. These abstracted applications can be specific to use cases (e.g. dynamic congestion management), carrier applications (e.g. mobile video management), technologies (e.g. weather management for microwave links) and more.

Developing app-centric service creation

SDN promises the integration of network resources to create what could be described as a unified network operating system or controller infrastructure, one that enables optimal connectivity for end-user applications across multiple layers, domains, vendors and technologies.

SDN equipment

In addition to the high degree of programmability and automation, SDN-enabled network is application-centric. Not every application has the same set of requirements or priorities, and neither are they billable in the same way nor equally profitable to the service provider. Aligning network resources to serve the performance requirements (e.g. latency, cost) of specific applications and services translates into direct financial benefits for the service providers. In this sense, the operator has the ability to “monetize” network properties such as differentiated resiliency or lack of latency.

SDN by the numbers

SDN has the potential to deliver radical cost and time saving benefits for businesses via:

  • Potential for automation via program controls to mechanize functions, reducing human error and increasing efficiency

  • The rapid availability of new products and services

  • Decreased times for dimensioning and provisioning resources for applications

  • Reduced complexity associated with provisioning and configuring diverse resources

  • Decreased capex and opex by allowing customers to quickly customize required connection parameters while operators distribute loads to the most appropriate resources with greater efficiency

  • Minimized vendor lock-in and forced upgrade cycles

SDN evolution will take time to propagate in the network and will vary in adoption rates across different applications, geographies and network operator environments. Having said that, SDN's main potential is to unlock revenue opportunities and optimize cost structures and networks more tightly integrate fixed networks, mobile infrastructures and data centre connectivity.

Nevertheless, organizations should adopt the right infrastructure elements early, and begin to implement virtualization and SDN as they are able. Those that have prepared themselves invariably realize the benefits sooner and gain a competitive advantage over their competitors.

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About the author

Stuart Benington is Director of the Cloud/SDN Business Unit at Coriant, where he is responsible for the SDN, NFV and cloud-based solution portfolio. Benington has 25 years of experience in the technology industry and prior to this role, Benington held a variety of product management, marketing, and engineering positions for products in the packet optical, routing and mobile infrastructure markets.

Coriant, founded as an independent company in 2013, is an industry-leading supplier of dynamic metro-to-core transport solutions. It serves over 500 customers globally, including 90% of the world’s top 50 service providers. Its end-to-end product portfolio and software-defined networking solutions enable mobile and fixed lined operators to reduce network complexity, increase service velocity, and improve resource utilization as transport networks scale in response to a new generation of high-bandwidth services and applications. The company operates worldwide in more than 48 countries, with R&D centres in Asia, Germany, Portugal and the United States, as well as a state-of-the-art production centre in Berlin, Germany.

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