by Juliana Kenny
Software-defined networking (SDN) is far from a buzzword these days, having evolved from a sort-of nebulous concept a few years ago to a change in data center structure embraced by tech giants such as Facebook, HP, Cisco, and IBM. It is arguable that companies like VMware and Cisco have been setting the stage for the adoption of SDN for years. Indeed, they have been forward-looking in the enterprise networking space since that is their area of expertise. But many smaller companies have also been looking ahead to the future of the data center, cloud technologies, and how “software-defined hardware” will shape the backbone of businesses. Reports continue to come out — most recently this week — forecasting the massive potential growth for SDN, and how the future of the data center depends on it.
Software-defined networking is the term used to describe the centralizing of a network so that adjustments can be made to network layers without having to replace expensive, legacy hardware. Operators have better control over the communication between network layers with SDN because software controls the path of packets between network layers. SDN is the move toward software-based control of a network, allowing for more flexibility in the data center, and ideally saving a business time and money maintaining its network.
A report from Marketwatch issued on June 25 says that Visiongain — a business intelligence provider — expects the software-defined data center (SDDC) market to reach $19.31 billion in 2015. This valuation is the result of work from both the enterprise world and independent forums made up of networking experts trying to drive the SDN market. Projects like OpenFlow — a protocol for SDN — emerged in 2011 from the Open Networking Foundation. Huge companies like Google have adopted open networking systems. Facebook executives propound the necessity of networks to be more open and for the networking world to establish standards for it. (Facebook has gone so far as to develop its own designs for open-source hardware, as revealed in March.) Cisco has routinely stated that traditional networking is slowly being left behind in favor of networking hardware with an overlay of software. Over time, the hype and confusion around SDN has transformed into curiosity and adoption — a trend comparable to that of the emergence and embrace of cloud computing. After all, there was a time when businesses dismissed the idea of the cloud simply because their decision makers didn’t know what it was.
But today, the idea of overhauling hardware is nothing new; open hardware is a concept that has trickled down even into mainstream technology such as smartphones. Applying software to hardware to make it adjustable, flexible, and more controllable using less time and fewer resources is making its way into the minds of business leaders and IT departments. Of course, SDN is not without its obstacles as a burgeoning technology. As with the concept of cloud computing, it takes some time before full adoption is welcomed and possible. Some software-defined networking technology itself is still in the development stages, and merging it with legacy infrastructure is a challenge IT leaders do not relish.
As the companies that look to automate their networks and apply as much software as possible to them onboard SDN and move into the next era of the data center, other challenges will likely be discovered — as is the case with on-boarding any new technology. But most expect the benefits to outweigh the costs as data center technology evolves.