Wikipedia defines software-defined networking (SDN) technology as an ‘approach to computer networking that allows network administrators to programmatically initialise, control, change, and manage network behaviour dynamically via open interfaces and abstraction of lower-level functionality’.
What this helicopter definition translates into is that the technology reduces cost, gives companies improved control, as well as flexibility and scalability, says Stuart Hardy, MD of Aritari.
Yet, says Neil Dragt, head of Product Development at Internet Solutions, SDN is not a single solution or technology; it’s an evolution of networking products and services happening in South Africa and abroad. “As SDN is software- (rather than hardware) based, South African enterprises adopting this technology into their organisations are better able to compete with global businesses, as adoption does not involve lengthy shipping and installation processes – the technology is accessible almost immediately via the cloud.”
Martin Walshaw, senior systems engineer at F5 Networks, says SDN is about making the network more flexible and responsive, so that organisations are better positioned to respond swiftly to challenges. “SDN enables enterprises to refocus their IT resources away from day-to-day infrastructure and move attention towards managing the quality of business experience.”
Customers can choose and buy services, such as routers and firewalls, within minutes from catalogues enabled by self-provisioning virtual services, says Ross Templeton, GM of networking at XON. He adds that it reduces new services time to market from weeks to hours or even minutes. “The primary benefit is that services will be available to customers almost immediately by offering services via self-care portals that slash time-to-market.”
Africa Analysis MD Dobek Pater says SDN will allow end-users more flexibility when it comes to products and/or services, and how they use these services. For example, some consumers may want an on-demand-service option, instead of fixed billing.
In addition, says Pater, it should provide end-users with a better ability to manage – to a degree – their own products and services, such as wide-area networks (WAN/SD-WAN).
As a result, says Pater, there should be cost savings because there will be less expensive ways of using the same (or better) products/services as before, but at a lower cost. “An important aspect is that with SDN, the greater flexibility of products/services makes them more suitable to a wider range of requirements.”
Previously, he says, a company may have needed to use that product that was overweight for its requirements and, as a result, was more expensive. “With SDN, it will be able to use a more suitable product for the purpose at a lower cost.”
Pater adds SDN means greater independence from service providers. “It will be easier to switch service providers and continue using SDN products/services, as the solutions will be in the cloud.”
We believe it’s going to solve myriad problems that we haven’t even thought of yet – just as cloud in general has done.
Matt Allcoat, chief architect for Asia, Middle East, Africa & Turkey at BT, says SDN and associated networking technologies are critical enablers for the digital revolution transforming today’s business landscape.
He says the current way to configure networks is having someone setting up each of the network devices individually, then measuring results. This, he says, means the entire process could take four months. “The cycle time to iterate towards an ideal outcome is measured in months.”
With SDN, however, Allcoat says a computer is used to do the configuration, the measurement and the reconfiguration many times a minute. This means the `cycle time to move towards the ideal outcome is measured in seconds’, which is more efficient.
“This improvement in cycle time means that businesses will move towards the ideal outcome many times per minute, instead of many times per year, which is going to give them much more efficient use of whatever assets they have deployed.
“This can be used to breathe new life into an existing network infrastructure by switching from human defined networks to software defined networks. It also allows the business to do things that wouldn’t be viable if they worked at the speed of human beings.”
SDN is becoming a reality – not just in South Africa, but across the globe. However, this technology is still in its initial stages of evolution. Pater notes: “In some respects, South Africa is not far behind more developed markets.”
However, Innovo Networks MD Damian Michael says research shows that SA is behind the adoption curve and many IT managers and CIOs do not know what SDN is. He says the global market is expected to grow at $132 billion by 2022 and South Africa is lagging behind.
Michael says Innovo has been trialling SDN with clients for the past few months in preparation for full-scale commercial production. “We no longer need to imagine a network that can be programmed in real-time to offer personalised, flexible and on-demand connectivity, thanks to SDN.”
The primary benefit is that services will be available to customers almost immediately.
Caron Perkins, CEO of Success Builders International, adds that 5G networks will drive SDN adoption, and that this technology should be universally more widespread in the next three to five years. “Costly solutions from specific vendors, which have sustained the networks for so long, can’t be written off and discarded.”
Pater points out that South Africa is beginning to see the introduction of SDN products and services. However, he says, it will probably be another two to three years before we see strong uptake of SDN products and services by end-users in SA, and another five years before this technology becomes the norm.
Small and medium-sized companies may move over to the technology faster as SDN is better suited to this environment, while larger corporates will probably take longer to migrate, as they first want to test the new products to determine their benefits and limitations. In addition, they also often have more traditional products, which will take time to migrate away from. “With SDN services being delivered from a cloud environment, it is easier to provide services remotely, as long as the underlying connectivity is available.”
However, Greg Montjoie, executive: SDN/internet access at Internet Solutions, says, while international companies are picking up on SDN, the percentage of complete adoption is still very small, with many enterprises using a hybrid of traditional MPLS and SDN networks.
Adoption, says Montjoie, depends very much on the enterprise, its culture and its approach to innovation. “Enterprises already trust the cloud, with many having already virtualised their datacentres so we expect that the journey to SDN adoption will be quicker.”
He adds that the ISPs, cloud vendors, governments and enterprises of the future will be in the business of virtualised products, services and systems in a global digital economy where demand for consumer services is not determined by geography or time.
“We’re having conversations with South African companies in the financial, manufacturing, retail, FMCG and public sectors, which stand to benefit from SDN’s consolidation of inefficient networks, enhanced security, scalability and network automation.”
Montjoie says SDN allows businesses to adopt more of a pay-as-you-go approach to networking, enabling them to ramp up capacity and performance as they need it, without investing in the hardware that they think they may need in the future.
“Many businesses buy and install a large network appliance for their own enterprise datacentre – and only use five to 15% of its capabilities. While their intention may be future-proofing, they are paying for features and capacity that they are not using.
“SDN allows businesses to adopt more of a pay-as-you-go approach to networking, enabling them to ramp up capacity and performance as they need it, without investing in the hardware that they think they may need in the future.”
As a result, says Pater, the business impact should be mostly positive. “It will make business more agile in terms of services they provide to their clients. They should also be able to streamline their operational costs by aligning them more closely to their specific requirements in providing services to their clients.”
In addition, services will be provisioned faster, be more suitable to business user requirements, as well as be delivered at a lower cost.
Pater says larger companies can use SDN technology/infrastructure from their service providers as part of their wide area network (software defined wide area network) solution. In addition, smaller companies will also be able to use SDN technology for their connectivity between branches, over the internet.
Dragt notes that there will also be an impact on traditional networking and telephony vendors. “They’re having to innovate, making their internal processes more efficient to compete with emerging and more cost-effective services. SDN makes it possible for new or small vendors to solve problems in a more efficient way.”
Perkins says companies, as a whole, would not necessarily need to change their business models to make the shift to SDN.
“However, it will help them innovate and be more responsive to the changes in the business landscape of the future. SDN as an architecture is built on the solid foundations and technologies that we find in traditional networking.”
He notes that being able to up-skill current engineers to the possibilities of SDN and the vision that it provides will empower companies to leverage current skills. It’s important to understand that SDN creates a more open and centralised environment, allows growth and innovation at the network level – without relying on costly vendor upgrades and hardware, Perkins adds.
Pater says companies are likely to start using the services as they start becoming available, which will result in hybrid networks emerging as some elements of historical solutions are likely to be kept on. For operators, he says, time and money will have to be spent on new platforms or partnerships with global platform providers.
Montjoie adds SDN could benefit small businesses wanting to enter a ‘big business’ space. “For example, if a small business wants to enter the financial services sector, the compliance and governance requirements around networking and security are massive – and expensive. SDN lowers the barriers to entry in this sector, as a nominal fee will secure the required networking space and security that this business needs – and it is elastic enough to adapt to growth instantly.”
Allcoat says a hybrid model is the way forward – and what every organisation should be deploying across its whole IT stack. “There is a part of networking that – at least for the foreseeable future – is going to remain the same…For pretty much everything apart from that wire and fibre, though, we are about to see some massive changes.”
Montjoie says software defined networks are the building blocks of cloud-integrated networks, where cloud service and network is merged rather than linked together. The goal is to eliminate the network bottleneck that is inevitable as the need for bandwidth escalates.
“A shift is happening away from infrastructure and hardware, to cloud services for both datacentre and network. A whole new market could be created for network apps, where new functionality is designed and provided to anyone managing a network, for instant deployment.”
Allcoat believes that, in the near future, special-purpose devices will be replaced with network `apps’ that do the same job, but in software, where computers will configure apps to act on end-user requests.
Other advantages Allcoat cites include added security, as private networks can be created to include only exact users, which wouldn’t be viable without SDN.
Perkins notes SDN is currently used extensively in datacentres. “With the growth of the Internet of Things and the vast range of applications that are going to find their way into the networks of the future, the need to divide the network into different slices, each with different service requirements, is going to drive the demand for the flexibility and dynamic capabilities of SDN.”
However, Montjoie says many businesses are working to understand the issues around governance, risk and compliance that may arise out of moving to SDN. “Implementation is a little trickier than ‘drop and go’ if you have an existing network environment, so it’s worth engaging with a trusted partner to investigate all the implications.
“We believe it’s going to solve myriad problems that we haven’t even thought of yet – just as cloud in general has done,” says Montjoie.
Notes Perkins: “The internet gave us the opportunity to connect in ways we could never have dreamed possible. The Internet of Things will take us beyond connection to become part of a living, moving, global nervous system.
“For a business to survive in the future, it will need to be part of this global interconnected ecosystem, and SDN forms the basis of the interconnectivity of all things.”
Trends in SDN
- Some of the current and upcoming trends in SDN use include using SDN to provide SD-WAN (wide area network) services, using the internet (broadband connections).
- Use of on-demand services, e.g., on-demand bandwidth (higher throughput/speed) as required, on-demand firewall (e.g., stronger firewall capabilities when a virus attack threat is detected).
- Structuring of products better suited to user needs – degree of customisation of products, building them on common product bases/platforms – modular products, where products can be expanded/enhanced by adding to them as needed.
- Used in the datacentre environment as well as linking multiple branches across the continent.
What is NFV?
Network functions virtualisation (NFV) is the concept of replacing dedicated network appliances, such as routers and firewalls, with software running on commercial off-the-shelf servers. It optimises service creation, activation and assurance by bringing the benefits of the cloud to the metro edge.
The aim of NFV is to transform the way communication service providers (CSPs) architect networks and deliver network services. Network operations are transformed as network function software is dynamically instantiated in various network locations in the network as needed, without requiring the installation of new equipment.
Ensemble Architecture is the industry’s first open architecture for software-defined services. Designed to support high-performance business services, mobile backhaul, and cloud connectivity, Ensemble optimises service creation, activation and assurance by bringing the benefits of the cloud to the metro edge. With this new open architecture that embraces the principles of software defined networking (SDN) and NFV, service providers are able to maximise operational efficiencies and introduce new revenue-generating services faster and easier than ever before.
Benefits of NFV
- Lower hardware costs by replacing dedicated appliances with shared servers
- Speed up revenue-generating services to market
- Reduce operational costs with fewer appliances to deploy and maintain
- Support on-demand pay-as-you go deployment models
- Enable innovation by making it easier to develop network functions
- Deploy virtualised solutions on commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware
What is SDN?
SDN is short for software defined networking. Software defined networking (SDN) is an approach to using open protocols, such as OpenFlow, to apply globally aware software control at the edges of the network to access network switches and routers that typically would use closed and proprietary firmware.
This article was first published in the September 2017 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.
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