What every B2B company needs to know about Software-Defined Networking (SDN)

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As one of the latest communications technologies, software-defined networking (SDN) has the promise to revolutionize the way B2B firms deploy and manage business networks with full centralization, greater automation, more flexibility and reduced costs.

However, there are also security, congestion, latency and SDN typology concerns to address. This primer looks at some of the key advantages of SDN for B2B as well as issues that must be considered before moving from a legacy, on-premises networking solution to an SDN approach based in part on a cloud computing model.

Control issues
Generally, SDN gets defined as a method of decoupling the controller or control plane—a code-based function—from the underlying data and physical planes—firmware and hardware. By decoupling the controller from the underlying hardware, SDN presents issues that are different from or not significant in current networking options.

First of all, security comes to top of mind. “By moving the ‘brains’ of the network to a central controller, SDN creates a new vulnerability,” says Tim Naramore, chief technology officer, Masergy, a global managed networking and cloud services provider. “If the controller is taken down by an attack, the entire network can crash. SDN solutions require additional security measures, both built into the architecture and delivered as a service.”

Regarding security, one expert says the questions B2B buyers should ask about an SDN system would be the same of any network system. “Many SDN solutions allow you to set (security) policies but one of the questions I always ask is, ‘What intelligence do I need to inform my policy making and decision making?’” says TK Keanini, chief technology officer, Lancope, provider of enterprise network visibility and security intelligence. “What threat models, strong authentication, code hygiene, etc., have been considered specific to your environment and your business? It comes down to interoperability and functionality that fits your business needs today and the future.”

In general, B2B networking staffs have to choose what type of SDN controller makes sense for them. (In choosing) an SDN controller, the top four controllers are ONOS, Ryu, HP VAN and OpenDaylight, says Steve Garrison, vice president of marketing, Pica8, provider of a network operating system for easily integrating SDN using commodity switches. “If your organization is not accustomed to open source development, choose HP VAN, because it opens the door to HP’s App Store and a set of SDN applications already tested and ready to try in your network.”

Benefits of SDN
For B2B professionals, SDN has two main benefits: ability to centralize network administration in the cloud or anywhere else and liberation from legacy solutions, including routers and switches. So B2B companies can reprogram routers and switches across the network automatically all at once, if so desired, rather than manually one by one.

And cost-effective SDN solutions can be implemented on open networking solutions, such as those from Dell, or white box switches (e.g., Pica8) instead of closed-system, dedicated devices driven by company-specific technology (e.g., Cisco), thus enabling a greater scale of networkability.

“Beyond automation and scalability, SDN as a technology offers a level of network visibility not previously available to end users,” says Paul Savill, senior vice president, core product management, Level 3 Communications. “(B2B) buyers should seek a solution that includes holistic network performance reporting so their administrators can see and react to changing network conditions in real time or on a scheduled basis without service interruption as often as needed.”

Cutting overhead
By some approximations, the lion’s share of B2B computer networking costs lies in management. Businesses can expect to save much overhead by cutting out the administration of the network by deploying SDN, notes Sam Coyl, president and CEO, Netrepid, a colocation, infrastructure and application hosting provider. “In the past, estimates have pegged this to be near 95 percent in capital costs, with a similar percentage in operational expenses,” he adds.

Saving money with ubiquitous SDN access is not just for large enterprises. For example, in April 2015, Orange Business Services, B2B arm of France Telecom, started working with 10 small to mid-size businesses (SMBs) to test a digital plug-and-play SDN. These companies are using SDN capabilities to create and manage in real time intranet and internet networks via a web portal. Through this portal, SMB network managers can order and customize new virtual application services including content filtering, advanced security and antivirus, according to Orange.

B2B service providers reduce costs, face SDN roadblock
With an aggregate $5 billion investment expected by 2020 for B2B communications service providers (CSPs), SMB-oriented telcos have big expectations for SDN.

“Most CSPs are hoping these technologies can drive down both capex and opex costs,” says Simon Osborne, chief technology officer, Comptel, a telecom software provider. “Aside from cost reduction, there’s another important advantage to deploying SDN for operations: flexibility.” For example, without constraints of physical hardware and leveraging real-time analytics, networks can become more responsive to customer needs, instantly adapting to demand, according to Osborne. “But the key to all of this is automation,” he says.

In addition to achieving real-time performance adjustments, SDN enables new applications such as network optimization, according to Jeff Vance, head of marketing strategy, Aryaka, a B2B cloud-based WAN optimization and application-acceleration platform. “However, as it matured, SDN hit a major roadblock: the WAN,” Vance says. “The public internet is too congested for this, and the old way businesses overcame congestion and latency issues—expensive private networks—weren’t designed to meet this challenge.”

On the other hand, an SDN-WAN provides intelligence in an interoperable vendor environment to help alleviate congestion and latency and allow access to resources anywhere in the cloud, according to Vance. “In the cloud and mobile age, knowledge workers demand speed, reliability, and predictability. The old (networking) methods can’t deliver that.”

Photo via computerworld.br

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Derek Handova

Derek Handova

Derek Handova is a veteran journalist writing on various B2B vertical beats. He started out as associate editor of Micro Publishing News, a pioneer in coverage of the desktop publishing space and more recently as a freelance writer for Digital Journal, Economy Lead (finance and IR beats) and Intelligent Utility (electrical transmission and distribution beats).