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Getting More: Enterprise Network

May 16, 2012

Compared to today’s server infrastructure, networks are still absurdly complex and labor intensive: the smallest change can involve hours of work at considerable cost and risk of service disruption. SDN, on the other hand, allows changes that used to take hours or days to be made in minutes – with fewer opportunities for human error. Not only does this save money, it allows greater freedom to respond to evolving business needs and user requests. It revolutionizes the entire networking cost structure. And we hope to banish forever the manual configuration errors that cause so many network failures.

SDN built around the OpenFlow® industry standard protocol decouples the network data and control planes, giving IT staff vendor-independent control over the entire network from a single logical point. As a result, network managers can reduce configuration overhead and errors, simplify policy creation and distribution, and more easily implement traffic engineering, access control, and compliance. In these days of “bring your own device” to work, SDN can be just the tool a network manager needs to foster employee initiative rather than fight it. Indeed, finally the network can evolve to actively support business strategy, not hamper it.

OpenFlow-based SDN has already gathered around it a healthy ecosystem of vendors. Brocade, Cisco, Dell, Extreme, HP, IBM, Juniper, and NEC are among the networking companies that have already implemented and demonstrated OpenFlow® on their switches. Open-source switch software is announced or available from Nicira and Pica8. Likewise, more and more open-source SDN controllers are already available, including NOX, Beacon, Floodlight, and Maestro.

In addition, and as described in a previous post, many carriers are some enterprises already implementing SDN/OpenFlow® in test beds and limited deployments. Over the next few years, enterprises can look forward to a growing choice of SDN-enabled capabilities – from OpenFlow-enabled products to new cloud services and orchestration tools that enable full-blown network virtualization.

But there’s no need to wait for tomorrow’s shrink-wrapped solutions. Enterprises can begin exploiting the benefits of SDN right now. IT shops that already tweak their networks by writing scripts to vendors’ APIs will find it easy to program OpenFlow-enabled switches. Using open source controllers and as little as 500 lines of code, IT staff at universities and other organizations have already automated configuration tasks, implemented load balancing, and enabled seamless WiFi and WiMax handoff, all across products from multiple vendors and in general gained more control and visibility over their network traffic.

OpenFlow® and SDN help enterprise networking staff to do more with less, even as the size and complexity of their networks increase. SDN can facilitate a wide range of network operations, lower IT operating expenses, increase utilization, and boost network uptime by automating configuration and other routine management tasks now done manually. As network virtualization catches up to the virtualization of computing and storage, enterprise IT managers will finally be able to employ a common suite of functional tools to manage all their IT infrastructure without getting bogged down in the plumbing.

--Dan Pitt

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Dan Pitt