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Maximising value: the role of software-defined networking

SDN technology includes the separation of network elements, allowing administrators to provision network connections on the fly, says Martin May, regional director of Enterasys Networks.

Google and Facebook are two high-profile companies that have realised the benefits of software-defined networking (SDN), and continue to drive innovation through new approaches to network building based on its premises.

One of the advantages of SDN technology includes the separation of network elements, allowing administrators to provision network connections on the fly instead of manually configuring policies, says Martin May, regional director of Enterasys Networks.

This is important because of the emergence of cloud computing together with virtualisation technologies are driving companies to create and configure virtual machines (VMs) remotely, and configure firewall rules or network addresses in response. SDN also allows network administrators to have programmable central control of network traffic without requiring physical access to the network's hardware devices.

This is achieved by decoupling the system that makes decisions about where traffic is sent (the control plane) from the underlying system that forwards traffic to the selected destination (the data plane). This technology simplifies networking and enables new applications, such as network virtualisation, in which the control plane and data plane are implemented in a software application.

The idea of SDN is not new. It goes back to the early 1990s when Cabletron (now Enterasys Networks) prototyped the Secure VNS (Virtual Network Service) leading to the development of its SecureFast solution.

In the service provider community, the concept has been floating around as iMS (iP Multimedia Systems) architectures, and in traditional voice TDM networks it has been implemented by the iN (intelligent Network) concept.

These technologies bridged the gap between business, technology and individual needs by understanding the relationship between these three areas and mapping technology resources to each person, securely and in real-time, based on their role in the company.

In 2001, this led to the idea of user personalised networks. One of its key benefits was the ability to understand the relationships between the users of a network and their business roles within an organisation, and leverage this understanding to provide secure, personalised access to IT services.

This enabled network managers to deploy complex security rules in an automated fashion by providing authentication at all network entry points under the user personalised networks umbrella. This principle later transformed into policy-based networking in which the ‘policies’ were defined in a centralised repository and were accessed by nodes that needed to make policy decisions or implement them.

A key feature of the technology was centrally managed server switch connections, allowing policies to be applied to data flows. This also facilitated the scalability of the network.

Today, SDN offers broadly the same benefits. Certainly, the links are faster, and the ‘centrally managed’ architecture now resides in the cloud, thanks to virtualisation.

However, SDN’s role has changed. Its true value lies in its ability to provide network virtualisation and the automation of configuration across the entire network fabric so new services and end-systems can be deployed rapidly and operational costs can be minimised.

Emerging protocols such as OpenFlow focus on this aspect, but this target can also be met today by leveraging existing and soon-to-be-standardised topology protocols like shortest path bridging, VLANs and VRF/MPLS, in combination with SDN architectures to provision network resources dynamically at the network edge for new devices and applications.

Enterasys, with its pioneering knowledge of secure VNS and user personalised networks – which formed the foundation for maximising the value of the network through centralised visibility and control – is today employing its OneFabric solution to leverage SDN’s architectural components, with similar objectives in sight.

Taking its early concepts to the next level, Enterasys is using SDN’s embedded automation features to improve application delivery for dynamic environments leveraging cloud, virtualisation, server/storage consolidation and the consumerisation of IT – a business model that could be worth $3.7 billion by 2016, according to a prominent research group.

Enterasys is now well on the way to optimising its OneFabric technology to leverage SDN features, at the same time supporting and protecting end-users’ investments in myriad third-party network devices, while integrating with major virtualisation solutions currently in service. The goal is to deliver unique and differentiated network-layer capabilities for all virtual data centres across the globe.

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