It wasn’t too long ago that data centers became more nimble to better support business initiatives with virtual servers that could be easily moved around. With virtual computing, computers essentially became bits of software, and getting new servers running took only minutes, not weeks.
Data center administrators rapidly adopted virtual environments to consolidate servers, reduce hardware costs, improve energy efficiency, and enhance operations. Network operators looked on with envy, as they clearly saw the benefits of virtualized infrastructure. They too, wanted to spin up and down networking resources with virtual instances, just as if they were dedicated hardware.
For service providers with rigid network resources, physically assigned in metro and wide-area networking (WAN) networks, their complex networking structures aren’t easily manipulated into making dynamic changes. Another challenge is the ability to manage their existing network connections, while at the same time, build new agile platforms with on-demand, multi-tenant services.
The time has come for network operators to also enjoy the benefits that virtualization and programmatic control over network infrastructure can deliver. So today, IXPs and ISPs are ready to forge ahead and deploy software-defined networking (SDN) with at-scale network virtualization and spin up virtual network infrastructure to more flexibly, and cost-efficiently, meet their customer’s demands.
Networks, they are a changing
Enter network hardware virtualization that ushers in virtual switching and routing instances at WAN scale. Done correctly, SDN with network virtualization can enable network service operators (and their customers) to spin up services quickly and easily to meet ever-changing demands.
While SDN is a hot commodity, and vendor offerings are coming to market quickly, most are a hybrid between an ethernet switch and an SDN data plane. Many SDN solutions come from hardware companies that customized their existing non-SDN firmware to, so to speak, ride the SDN wave. But with today’s need for speed and agility, and if SDN is going to work, it must be purpose-built for globally orchestrated production networks.
SDN with network virtualization solutions should support all kinds of network functions within software, running at line-rate (yes, even 100G), instantiated as full scale, logically separate virtual instances. When hosted on a fully programmable SDN switching and routing hardware platform, it will deliver the economical, automated, and highly scalable network connectivity that service providers need to compete.
Adaptable networks built for ever-changing customer demands
SDN with network hardware virtualization can make a significant difference for metro networks where traffic is challenging traditional network architectures that weren’t designed to deal with the immense volume and diversity of today’s demanding requirements.
By implementing new network overlays, network administrators can automate new service commissioning without having to rebuild their network hardware infrastructure. A good example of this is using hardware virtualization to enable on-demand network services, allowing the network administrator to spin-up network services, while offering direct control of the virtual switch to their customers through a self-serve portal.
This process can be transparent and seamless. From the customer’s point of view, they have access to the virtual switch platform, with all the performance as if it was a dedicated piece of hardware. For service providers, having a separate overlay and underlay within different administrative domains allows their network administrators to have complete network control, while allowing customers to access their service without impacting network performance or security.
The network administrator is able to easily add customer services using SDN APIs. If the customer moves, makes changes, or wants more, it’s just a call to the API, and the change is made. There’s no need to do anything with the physical hardware, and it all runs at line-rate speed.
Another example is isolating traffic into zones to improve performance or ensure greater security. A network operator can create different network zones, such as an external customer, a developer, or secure zone, each running on the same hardware that allows multiple zones to coexist within a parallel production network. The trick is having hardware virtualization capabilities within virtual switch and router overlays.
The key is adding flexible, programmable SDN switching and routing hardware that can economically automate and scale networks. This type of solution can be inserted into legacy networks and enables service providers to spin up highly scalable virtualized network functions like routers, gateways, firewalls, and more. And it automatically directs and manages network traffic with greater agility and faster performance.
Being protocol agnostic removes limitations
Network forwarding behavior generally resides in Layer 2 or 3. Layer 2 implies some kind of link layer protocol such as point-to-point or point-to-multipoint. Different protocols can be used for link layer protocols. For example, ethernet has simple VLAN circuits for point-to-point connections. QinQ is used for more complicated multi-tenant environments, while Learning Bridges is used for point-to-multipoint link layers. MPLS provides options like, single tagged MPLS tunnels, double tagged pseudo wires, nested LSPs, and incorporates Learning Bridges for multipoint services through VPLS and E-LAN protocols.
A purpose-built SDN hardware platform with protocol agnostic virtual instances is able to unify all of these link layer options by terminating them on any virtual port. But there is still more to do. The traffic on these links will need to be forwarded on another set of protocol behaviors, such as IPv4 routing on the traffic, Layer 4 application identification, or some other combination of fields that could include business logic for the service being offered. To accomplish this, a protocol agnostic SDN platform with virtual forwarding contexts can allow the full flexibility of a programmable network protocol like OpenFlow to capture the final destination of the packet being forwarded.
The flexibility and programmability that SDN provides at the link layer and above, removes the dev-ops barriers that come with conventional networking equipment. This flexibility, and the ability to allow multiple virtual instances of hardware, further removes the constraints on multi-tenant forwarding requirements, by allowing each tenant group to define its own unique combination of L2/L3 behaviors, with their own unique control plane implementation. And all this is simultaneously running on one piece of hardware, at full line-rate and scale.
Times, they are a changing
Data centers and networks are strategically vital to virtually every business and organization. There are significant technology advances at our fingertips that are literally sweeping the dirt off legacy infrastructure, removing the rigidity and complexity. SDN with network hardware virtualization enables network operators to deliver services to customers with diverse mobile workforces and decentralized offices to connect more effectively and efficiently, while enabling IT to be more cost-efficient, agile, and more responsive to ever-changing business requirements.
Clearly, there is a lot more to talk about, but the good news for network operators is they don’t need to be envious of their data center computing brethren. The benefits of SDN with network virtualization is now theirs to own running alongside their existing networks.