Software-Defined Networking: Beyond the Hype


Patrick Hubbard is Head Geek and Senior Technical Product Marketing Manager at SolarWinds.

For quite some time, software-defined networking (SDN) has been a white whale for many IT pros, representing a highly buzzed-about technology they can only aspire to implement . . . someday.

However, the arrival of VMware NSX in the data center and Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) is finally turning SDN from hype into bits in the data center.

Although VMware NSX and Cisco ACI take a very different approach to SDN – VMware focusing on network virtualization and Cisco ACI focusing on butting the application at the center of the network – these technologies have the potential to completely transform the network management strategies we know today.

What makes SDN unique?

Before diving into today’s SDN landscape, it’s important to understand exactly what SDN is, and what makes this approach to networking so unique.

A game-changing technology, the software-defined approach to networking takes control away from manual configurations in individual hardware devices and shifts it to a distributed model with a software application called the controller at its heart.

This approach automates many of the ways networks are managed, providing network pros with the flexibility, programmability and agility to manage ever more complex and rapidly changing environments.

While the benefits of SDN are clear, there’s still a healthy amount of criticism and doubt that SDN can be applied in a real-world IT environment. In fact, there are two camps of IT pros: those who are fully on board with SDN and its benefits and eager to implement, and those with reasonable skepticism for how it will work in their data center. Regardless of what camp you’re in, you can no longer ignore SDN.

To come up to speed on SDN and how it can provide value to networks, there are a few key considerations you can take into account to ensure you’re not left in the dust now that SDN’s time has finally arrived.

Building a sufficient knowledge base

With any new technology implementation, there’s a level of education that’s needed to understand how to use that technology. SDN is no different. There are a number of vendor-specific certifications from Cisco, VMWare and HP that networking pros can reference to build their knowledge base. These certifications include, but are not necessarily limited to:

– Business Application Engineer
– Network Application Developer
– Network Programmability Designer
– Network Programmability Support

– VMware Certified Associate, Network Virtualization
– (Free) VMWare Network Virtualization course related to VCA-NV certification


Testing the SDN waters

After building a sufficient knowledge base on SDN, the next step will be to work with SDN in an IT environment, making sure it meets the business’ needs, as well as those of the IT department. By creating a test center, you can take an experimental approach and begin implementing SDN in small stages. This approach will allow you to assess the value of SDN for your business and learn how to make SDN work for you.

Ensuring the price is right for your budget

In today’s business landscape, the needs of the IT department have become the needs of the business. So, with any new software deployment, you will need to make a business case for SDN in order to land the budget and resources needed to begin an installation. Understanding how SDN works in your environment and the value and cost savings it can bring to the business will arm you with the intelligence needed to make a sound business case for SDN.

Securing SDN

New and groundbreaking technologies tend to focus on innovation rather than practicality, so security is typically the last feature added to any new revolutionary piece of software. In other words, even though security is becoming increasingly important, it’s often prioritized later in the game. But with SDN making 75 percent of network and security configurations, the business risk for data breaches increases greatly without sufficient oversight. To curb this, you will have to be just as proactive and cautious about security as the admins working on legacy infrastructure.

It’s only a matter of time before SDN becomes a mainstream technology. It’s time to get on board with SDN by educating yourself on the technology, gaining an understanding of how it can work for both the IT department and the business and how to make it secure.

If you’re a network administrator, you should take a lesson from your systems counterparts – some of whom struggled a bit to catch up when virtualization adoption began in earnest. By understanding how developments happening now represent SDN’s ultimate imminence, IT pros can prepare to optimize their networks for software-defined environments.

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  1. I'll certainly continue to ignore SDN until it is plug and play and completely transparent to everything on the network. I wrote a ~4,000 word blog post last year after being able to ask Martin Casado (inventor of SDN) some direct questions at a keynote he did last year(his responses confirmed my thoughts on SDN and I was delighted to finally have real answers). Not hard to find if your interested in the excruciating details just google my website name along with SDN, and it's the top result. The quote I think that sums it up for me is "So, SDN solves a problem for me which doesn't exist, and never has." I've spoken to several network folks even those that are pretty hard core SDN and if you get up and personal with them (at least the ones I have spoken to) admit SDN is not for everyone, and it may not be for everyone for some time to come. (goes back to quote above most orgs do not have the problems that SDN is trying to solve). SDN makes a lot of sense for the service providers and perhaps other very large scale operations, for most everyone though it's a solution that is looking for a problem that doesn't exist. One of Martin's slides from his keynote said "Having an SDN strategy is like having a python strategy", another key point in a slide he says SDN is "not a solution for customers"