By 2020, as many as 1 million new connections will be added to the internet every hour. The sheer size, scale, and variety of devices and platforms from which these connections will arise is extraordinary.

Traditional networking architectures are totally ill-equipped to handle such an explosion in demand for network management. Let alone optimizing the networks for optimum performance at the end points. A completely fresh and novel approach is the need of the hour, and thankfully, industry leaders have been working on one for some years.

Cisco’s Intent based networking systems (IBNS) are a milestone in this direction. It offers a contextual and intent-based networking capability that allows network managers to automate network performance based on user specified performance requirements. For instance, if an end user is experiencing network issues, IBNS re-routes the network traffic in real time to ensure that their network traffic does not suffer. In other words, the IBNS are hardware agnostic. They allow network management at a plane that is disaggregated from a plane that handles data.

Juniper Networks, another major player in network security and performance, ships its MX series routers fully equipped with Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) optimized for SDN. While Cisco’s approach is more hardware-focused, Juniper envisions a more software-intensive approach to this inventive network architecture.

Cisco and Juniper are not the only two players that have realized the importance of this networking architecture that is known as Software-Defined Networking (SDN). IDC, a market intelligence firm, estimates that the SDN industry has grown from a mere $406 million market in 2013 into a $6.6 billion market in 2017. The firm estimates that the industry will register a CAGR of 25.4% over the next few years and double in size by 2021. Clearly, there is a need for a closer look into this groundbreaking technology.

So, What is SDN?

Software-Defined Networking (SDN) can be defined as virtualization of networks for the purpose of centralizing network control. The present generation of networks is far too decentralized to make network management efficient and effective. SDN seeks to separate the data forwarding planes from the routing planes and thereby introduce more agility into the network control. The centralized data routing is controlled with software-defined systems that allow network managers to introduce programmable network performance, traffic, and security policies on a granular level, thus automating the network management.

In simpler terms, SDN allows network managers to optimize the networks based on context. A globally distributed network powered by SDN technology can ask itself questions like, “Is Customer XYZ located in Tokyo, receiving their desired level of network performance on their BYOD?”, and then re-route the network, if necessary, to ensure that desired levels of performance are being met.

Benefits Offered by SDN

SDN is the networking architecture for the cloud. It is clearly built for the future of networking. It has immense potential to transform the networking infrastructure across the globe and therefore, is gaining widespread attention in the ICT industry. Here are the most important benefits offered by SDN.

Network Programmability and Automation
SDN gives network managers total awareness and overview of the entire network environment, even if it is spread across the globe. But more importantly, it grants them centralized control of the network. Equipped with such a control, network managers can automate network management with command line interface (CLI) or application program interfaces (APIs). Tasks like provisioning and de-provisioning of networks, and enforcement of security policies be automated too. This automates the network performance in real time.

Superior Security Management
SDN allows network managers to implement a whole spectrum of network security from network-wide security to end point security. Installation of firewalls, encryptions, and upgradation of security infrastructure and protocols can be handled from a centralized location. Cisco has recently demonstrated an SDN-based technology that identifies malware even in encrypted traffic without decrypting the information.

Better Network Management with Microsegmentation
A centralized network built on SDN architecture opens up the network to global level threats. Managing these threats requires a novel approach, which is embedded right into SDN. SDN allows network managers to segregate their networks into multiple segments with localized security and use policies. A public-facing segment of the network, which does not handle any sensitive information, can be equipped with low level security policies. Conversely, a back-end network segment that handles sensitive information can be equipped with cutting-edge security policies. Such microsegmentation allows superior security management of the networks from a central command.

Challenges Facing SDN

SDN is a new technology. Like any new technology, it solves some old problems and introduces some new challenges of its own. These challenges have a direct impact on the performance of the entire network.

Real-Time Network Resource Monitoring and Allocation
Granular level network performance and policy management requires a centralized performance monitoring system with open API level access. Such a system should also be able to measure and monitor the performance at the basic level and optimize it in real time within that segment. In addition, it should also have the capability to collect a wealth of information for analytics. This can lead to AI-powered SDN network management in the future. At present, there exists a significant gap in visibility of the networks, which make such granular level monitoring a thing of the future.

The Ever-growing Demand for Performance Monitoring
As noted before, there will be 1 million new connections added to the internet every hour by 2020. The network management systems designed for the future networks must be capable of accommodating such a deluge of devices seamlessly. If they cannot add new devices easily and quickly, then they will exceed their capacity soon and become obsolete. One of the proposed solutions is the implementation of performance monitoring systems at both physical as well as virtual level. When performance requirement exceeds available capacity, more virtual appliances can be provisioned to handle the excess network requirements.

Service Contextual Network Optimization
Introducing service context would be the final frontier of SDN. Implementing end user level performance and security policies still remains a colossal challenge, despite the advantages offered by SDN. Network management systems designed for this purpose must be built with complete awareness of hardware, logical, and virtual connectivity of the various devices present in the network.

Final Words

SDN is still in its nascence and every network solutions provider envisions a different future for the industry. However, they all agree that SDN has a tremendous potential to bring about paradigm changes to cloud computing and networking. Moreover, CTOs should think more about which of their network problems can be solved by SDN, rather than which approach will win the SDN war. After all, that’s the only way to maximize their benefits from this technology.