The cradle for tomorrow’s Software-Defined Networks

There's a lot of buzz around Software-Defined Networking but who is set to reap the rewards right now?

Much has been written about the benefits of Software-Defined Networking (SDN). These benefits include: transforming traditional networks into high value-added service delivery platforms, leveraging the cloud for service delivery, and building more programmable and customised networks, among others.

SDN is creating change across the networking industry and the research and education (R&E) community is well positioned to gain immediate benefits.

Historically, R&E networks are the early adopters of cutting-edge technology. These networks have a 20-plus year history of being first to test and deploy new transmission and switching technologies, often before these technologies have been evaluated in commercial labs.  There is a proven adage that what research networks do today is what the masses will use in the future.  SDN promises to be part of this track record.

SDN allows global, national and regional R&E institutions to effectively share infrastructure with other R&E organisations, while maintaining isolation, distinct policies, and security. This could eventually lead to the creation of a global R&E network for advanced applications that can operate independent of Telco hierarchies or network infrastructures, a historical requirement that created restrictions in collaborative R&E networks.

But to collaborate effectively, it is necessary to ensure control of the network follows consistent, standardised practices.  This is one of the key benefits that SDN offers the R&E community.

Standardising the network

Historically, networks have evolved in support of a wide range of applications, ranging from local printers to global cloud-based services.  As new tasks and applications were introduced, it often implied specialised equipment, often with high-end proprietary technologies.

The massive installed base of equipment and protocols, along with the (understandable) reluctance to experiment on production networks, have created several barriers to innovation. As a result, many new ideas from the networking research community go untried and untested.

SDN has evolved in response to this challenge. By enabling ‘programmable’ networks, SDN creates an environment where standardised control of the network can deliver unique and specialised applications, but without the need for unique and specialised devices or technology in the networking elements.

In the R&E community for instance, programmable networks can allocate researchers a virtual “slice” of network resources, which may be customised to address a particular organisation, application, or technology’s specific requirements. This slice may only be used once or could become a periodic service for functions such as routine data backup or retrieval.

Programmability also introduces other opportunities, like automation and virtualisation, further expanding the scope of what is possible across multiple networks. For example, researchers at École de technologie supérieure in Montreal are modelling a totally carbon neutral network, utilising wind, solar and hydro energy to operate a virtualised data centre. Using predictive modelling techniques, virtual machines can be automatically moved to where energy is “greenest”.

Best of all, much of this innovation is already happening, taking us quickly to open, programmable networks that can be exercised via standardised interfaces and APIs.

Most notably, the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) is aggressively promoting the development of open networks, and by extension, a universal SDN architecture.  In particular, the ONF has been leading the effort behind OpenFlow, which provides an open interface that decouples the control software from the underlying hardware. The resulting ‘common control layer’ can control multiple vendors' equipment simultaneously, and is compatible with existing equipment running today's Layer 2 and Layer 3 protocols.

Further, the ONF helps to facilitate innovation by hosting “plug-fest” events to bring hardware and software technologies from various parties together in an effort to drive increasing traction for SDN innovation.

From blueprint to reality

In mid-August, four of the world’s largest R&E networks - CANARIE, Internet2 , ESnet and StarLight – along with Ciena announced their collaboration to create the industry’s first end-to-end WAN that leverages OpenFlow across both the packet and transport layers.

With this networking platform, researchers can trial new technologies and applications on a fully operational network without having to build a unique infrastructure for every instance.  Several benefits are quickly realised:

  • Dynamic capacity adjustments by easily-flexed network bandwidth
  • Streamlined provisioning and configuration actions
  • Faster deployment of services and applications
  • Virtual partitioning of a shared network infrastructure for quick prototyping, that does not impact existing applications

With the unprecedented level of programmability, control, and automation that SDN offers, enterprises and service providers – not only R&E organisations – can build highly scalable and flexible networks that can adapt to changing business and end-user needs.

For example, enterprises can improve their customer relationships by offering timely and secure online access to critical data over the enterprise network. A financial services company can give corporate customers the opportunity for third-party reporting, or even allow third-party analytics firms to directly access enterprise transactional data.

While the bulk of today’s investment in network infrastructure will still be funnelled into current network hardware and software platforms, there is clear traction towards a new era of open networking, and investment profiles are predicted to demonstrate that in the future.

The traction is clear:  According to research by Plexxi, SDNCentral and Lightspeed Venture Partners, by 2018, 46 per cent of overall data centre network spending will be on SDN-enabled optical, switching and routing hardware.

R&E networks are often the first adopters of future technology and, if the current wave of SDN development across major R&E networks is any indication, SDN will feature prominently in the networks of the future.

Karl Horne responsible for network architectural strategies and technologies for Ciena in the Asia Pacific region, including Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam.

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