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August 7, 2013

Q&A: Is SDN fit for purpose?

Simon Pamplin, director of systems engineering at Brocade, stands up for the emerging technology.

By Amy-Jo Crowley

Why are there so many businesses, almost a third, experiencing multiple network outages a week these days?

It boils down to the fact that many enterprises rely on antiquated networking infrastructure which simply cannot keep up with the pace of change in the workplace. The introduction of new technologies such as mobile devices, video conferencing and cloud-based business applications, along with an insatiable desire from the business for continuous interaction with data, has put data centre networks under more strain than ever.

It’s also important to remember that it isn’t just staff members that become frustrated by network downtime, it can often result in financial penalties, as SLAs are not met, or lost customer confidence, resulting in reputational damage.

How can users benefit from SDN?

Most routers and switches in the data centre need to be manually configured, meaning that if you need to change the flow of traffic the network administrator needs to physically reconfigure the piece of kit. SDN allows that manipulation through software, in real-time. As a result, the network becomes faster, more flexible and dynamic. SDN also helps to create a network that is both optimised for cloud, and one that is also more scalable and flexible. Data can be easily re-routed, thereby helping the business avoid any potential bottlenecks which could cause a network outage.

Why are Ethernet fabrics needed to deploy SDN?

Ethernet fabric is an innovative technology that enables organisations to build simpler, flatter, highly available, high-performance, cloud-optimised data centres whilst allowing them to preserve the existing network designs and cabling already in place. It replaces the traditional three-tiered, hierarchical data centre architecture with a much flatter design, whereby data and applications can move around freely and empower virtualisation. To deploy SDN successfully, resilient and automated fabric-based network architectures are critical.

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How would you compare the development of SDN to cloud computing?

In terms of uptake, SDN is today where cloud computing was two years ago. While Gartner claims that the SDN market is still relatively immature – with IDC putting the value of the SDN market at just $360m – it is set to grow exponentially by 2016, with IDC predicting that the market will hit $3.7bn in three years’ time. Cloud relied on virtualisation to give it the momentum to be embraced by businesses, and in the same way, SDN has had to wait for Ethernet fabrics to be introduced in order to create the required data centre architecture and infrastructure to enable SDN to really come into its own.

How do you deal with criticisms of SDN, which have ranged from lacking in implementation and interoperability to not being in the interest of larger vendors?

It is not surprising that SDN is coming in for criticism, as it is a challenge to the old way of doing things. For example, the expectation that hardware is responsible for governing all storage and networking operations. This is where the large networking vendors have traditionally seen high revenues and growth. When we think about interoperability, it is again all in the design. We are committed to open standards and Brocade is a supporter of open standards, such as the OpenFlow and OpenDaylight consortiums.

Do you think there any other challenges concerning how datacentres are built and run?

That the manipulation of the network using software could cause a loss of control, or that we are just creating the possibility of more management issues, not less. These concerns are common when new technologies emerge as potential growth areas. With the right approach to SDN and an infrastructure that has fewer layers, and a fabric, the true benefits of SDN can be realised.

How do you think the evolution of networking will pan out in the future?

Fabric technology will be an inflection point in network design and the network will enable businesses to develop and innovate as a result. Whilst we may still be a year or two away from widespread SDN adoption, virtualisation is here to stay, and for this reason, we believe that the future of networking is looking healthy.

How are you planning to expand your portfolio in the future?

Enterprises are looking to implement more virtualisation and software solutions – known as Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) – and our recently announced vision for the On-Demand Data Centre enables customers to simplify and automate their networks, as well as dramatically improve network efficiency, utilisation and performance. This strategy also represents another logical step on the path toward mass customer adoption of SDN.

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