SDN is a very confusing topic. Some believe that SDN is the great equalizer that will de-couple network hardware from the control plane thus taking away the competitive advantage that hardware vendors have had for years and reduce the price of equipment to a few dollars. While others believe that SDN will be no more than a feature that rides on top of existing network/Internet infrastructure; turning on and off as necessary. Everyone generally falls somewhere in the middle of those two beliefs and either one may be the future of SDN. At this point, it's anybody's guess.
Much of the information, reference designs, whitepapers, and press around SDN are so esoteric that anyone who doesn't have a background in programming and network engineering is left confused and wondering what it was that they just read. Sometimes I wonder if I read a whitepaper on SDN or the schematics for a new KitchenAid. I say this having been on a bender of reading stacks of SDN documents over the past few days and being more confused now than when I started. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an engineer and as technical as the day is long but what is missing out there is a simple explanation of the benefits and possibilities that SDN unlocks for business and consumers. No one has told the story, as far as I can find, that will energize industry to adopt the technology and push the boundaries of our capabilities a bit further. Allow me to spark your imagination…
I was a little hyper-link-happy (HLH?) in that last paragraph, so instead of sending you all over the Internet to find out what I’m talking about let me paint a picture of what an SDN-enabled future looks like:
Imagine you're a business owner (large or small) and you have a requirement to track your supply lines, operations, manufacturing, quality control, inventory levels, shipping information, sales and marketing efforts, and point of sale information. That’s a lot of data coming in from a lot of different places. Some of today’s current challenges are simply collecting it accurately, getting it to some kind of database, organizing and maintaining it all, analyzing it for efficiencies in various areas, and then there are security and archival concerns! That’s a lot to think about. Where to put it all? What if you're a small “asset-less” company that operates around the world? Imagine if there was a service for enterprises like yours where you could open your laptop on your desk with no more than a wireless connection and an Internet uplink and could automatically build a virtual network that connects to all of your locations: supply in one country, production and inventory in another, and all your employees around the world exactly like if you were all plugged into a big switch in the same office building. Further, it would partition disk space to hold all of your shared files, databases, applications, and email archives. It would also automatically put inline firewalls, intrusion detection services, and encrypt your data in flight and at rest; all in a virtual environment that is private to only your employees and your business. Basically, everything that you would need to put in a rack, run a bunch of cables, configure all the devices and servers, SDN provides for virtually. Additionally, it would overlay business analytics software that can look at your sales figures, supply chains, world and market events, and predict how your next few quarters are going to go.
This process today is very labor and cost intensive. It's a huge barrier for start-up companies. Imagine if all of these exchange servers, firewalls, web load balancers, oracle databases, files, and folders existed on virtual machines. Imagine if they could communicate with network equipment to attach and align themselves without moving a single wire or piece of hardware. Imagine if they could do this automatically in a few seconds. The barriers to entry for running an IT infrastructure in any enterprise would crumble. As we know, the cheaper IT gets, the lower the price of products gets. This is a simple equation that can best be explained like this: Almost every product or service requires inputs. Let’s bunch all the labor and materials inputs as “Non-IT inputs” and all the servers, expertise, networking equipment and anything else that carries a bit or a byte as “IT inputs”. Some mix of Non-IT inputs and IT inputs + a smidgen of profit based on supply and demand in any market = price of your widget. So, if the price of IT goes down as your entire infrastructure goes virtual, then the price to produce your widget goes down, and some of those savings can be passed through to your customers thus reducing the price of all things, worldwide. It’s somewhat of a big picture but it starts to show the dramatic impact of IT on quality of life everywhere. Virtualization and control of all IT hardware by the user through simple interfaces like selecting how many servers to deploy, how much storage needed, how much compute needed, security, and backup requirements will turn huge CapEx, time, and labor into manageable OpEx while lowering barriers, promoting new business, and driving efficiencies in every industry. Yeah, it’s big.
SDN, OpenStack, and a handful of other innovations are coming together to offer this entire infrastructure automatically, seamlessly, and instantly as a cloud hosted service. Basically, SDN controllers (of varying types) will speak to virtual elements on IT hardware to meet your SLA requirements and have your data backed up for eternity in a handful of redundant locations. In fact, if your service provider lost a facility during your working day that hosted 1,000’s of business like yours, none of you would even know. SDN is taking all those racks out of your building, saving you tons in electricity, cooling, enormous capital outlays, and highly skilled labor, and offering it up on a subscription basis. If you grow, there aren't times of overspend or under productivity, simply adjust the slide-bar for more storage, compute, or bandwidth in whatever area you need it or upload a new piece of software from your laptop that you want to run on a few of your servers (virtual servers of course). That's what SDN is bringing to business, universities, and government large and small.
SDN opens new frontiers of collaboration from having a “Home network” that extends to all of your friends and relatives homes like you were all on the same wireless access point, in the same room, to global classrooms for real-time interaction around the world, automatically, without user interactions or lengthy configurations, or simple restrictions based on current protocol and technology limitations. It’s the underpinnings of an Internet that will deliver entire IT environments for business, education, and collaboration as a customizable, scalable, service.
The future of IT is infrastructure delivered through network based services via SDN. The future is software.