The IT industry is experiencing a major transition within the data center. The days of strictly defined server, network and storage silos will soon be behind us. The data center is no longer about just hardware; it is about applications and software. Application development has changed, and agile application development has gone mainstream. Traditional applications, such as Oracle and Microsoft Office, will continue to exist, however agile applications, such as Uber and Pokémon Go, are driving the need for self-service IT within corporate data centers. Agile applications are under continuous development, with updates being made available on a regular basis.

Software-defined networking (SDN) is now being viewed as a foundation to many new and emerging technologies that simplify and unify data center operations. Many organizations adopted server and storage virtualization years ago to abstract and consolidate data center resources, but they continued to physically manage and configure network switches. The result: Network operation can be a frustrating bottleneck that impairs both private cloud deployments and progress toward the software-defined data center (SDDC). With SDN in place, the SDDC is complete, and the foundation exist to add orchestration, allowing server, storage and network to be configured simultaneously via a web portal with a few simple clicks.

A survey conducted by eWeek found that nearly half of IT professionals expect to have deployed flexible, SDN-based network solutions within the next two years. The research firm IDC projects that the market for SDN will reach $8 billion in 2018, up from just $960 million in 2014.

The only real barrier to SDN development is education. Network engineers familiar with command line may be hesitant to move to this new, unfamiliar model. It is important for them to realize that knowing how the network works, what is going on under the covers, is incredibly valuable. They do have the ability to continue using command line, and by increasing their skillset they become even more valuable to their organization.

Trails Blazed

Industry standards such as OpenFlow and OpenDaylight offer roadmaps for vendors and enterprises alike, while vendor platforms such as Cisco ACI and VMware NSX provide ready-to-deploy solutions that enable programmatic control and automation of network resources. The vast majority of SDN deployments are split between these two platforms, which take distinct approaches to SDN:

Cisco ACI: This application centric solution requires Nexus 9000 switches and Application Policy Infrastructure Controllers deployed in a leaf-spine architecture to dynamically apply policy based on traffic flow. It offers control and automation of physical network infrastructure, or underlay, as well as the virtual network, or overlay. Cisco ACI works with all hypervisors, bare-metal and virtual servers.

VMware NSX: This hypervisor-centric solution virtualizes logical network architecture and services and decouples the network from underlying hardware. It requires VMWare ESXi on the hypervisor but can work with any robust physical network switches. VMware-aligned shops that manage large fleets of virtual machines and complex virtualized environments may find NSX the solution of choice. VMware NSX does not apply any configuration to the physical switch; it is concerned with Virtual Tunnel End Points (VTEPs).

Both solutions offer an additional layer of security via micro-segmentation. These solutions vastly improve command and control of deployed networks, providing central, programmatic management from a graphical, web-based interface. And like server and storage virtualization before them, SDN abstracts physical network resources. A network configuration task or upgrade that once took hours or days can be accomplished in seconds in an SDN environment. What’s more, provisioning of network resources can be done programmatically on the fly, based on established rules and policies.

Next Steps

Moving to a software-defined approach demands commitment. As early as possible, organizations should begin the process of transitioning infrastructure, practices and staff skillsets to support SDN. Among things to keep in mind:

Align the infrastructure. Most organizations face an early choice between ACI and NSX. A committed VMware shop may find NSX to be an attractive solution. For an enterprise aligned on Cisco gear and committed to deep network integration, ACI may be the choice. In some instances, organizations adopt both.

Improve the network. Incumbent switches and network ports may need to be updated to serve a virtualized SDN environment. A data center refresh is a typical time we see SDN deployed for the first time.

Build experience. IT staff should be exposed to SDN concepts and practices. Online tutorials and training resources can help to ensure that the network team is ready.

Manage expectations. All stakeholders should be involved in an SDN transition, not just the network team. SDN provides important benefits — including robust security — that users in other business and IT disciplines may not be able to appreciate without a proper introduction. Network administrators should educate their peers ahead of the transition.

Point to the future. With SDN in place, the stage is set to enable an SDDC and private cloud. Robust automation and orchestration enable full, self-service provisioning and charge-back, allowing quick spin-ups and easy retirement of resources.

Like other virtualization technologies before it, SDN is coming, whether organizations are ready or not. Those that master this technology before their competitors will give themselves a chance to gain a valuable advantage.

Rita Younger offers more details and guidance on SDN in this recent webinar.