Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), and network virtualization (NV) are giving us new ways to design, build and operate networks. Over the past two decades, we have seen tons of innovation in the devices we use to access the network, the applications and services we depend on to run our lives, and the computing and storage solutions we rely on to hold all that “big data” for us. This why SDN and NFV are happening today.
However, the underlying network that connects all of these things has remained virtually unchanged. The reality is that demands of the exploding number of people and devices using the network are stretching its limits.
- SDN: separates the network’s control (brains) and forwarding (muscle) planes and provides a centralized view of the distributed network for more efficient orchestration and automation of network services.
- NFV: focuses on optimizing the network services themselves. NFV decouples the network functions, such as DNS, caching, etc., from proprietary hardware appliances, so they can run in software to accelerate service innovation and provisioning, particularly within service provider environments.
- NV: ensures the network can integrate with and support the demands of virtualized architectures, particularly those with multi-tenancy requirements.
- White Box: uses network devices, such as switches and routers, that as based on “generic” merchant silicon networking chipset available for anyone to buy, as opposed to proprietary silicon chips designed by and for a single networking vendor.
The Constraints of Custom Hardware
Historically, the best networks — those which are the most reliable, have the highest availability and offer the fastest performance, etc. — are those built with custom silicon (ASICs) and purpose-built hardware. The “larger” the “box,” the higher the premium vendors can command, which only incentivized vendors to develop bigger, even more complex, monolithic systems.
Because it takes a significant investment to build custom silicon and hardware, rigorous processes are required to ensure vendors get the most out of each update or new iteration. This means adding features ad-hoc is virtually impossible. Customers that want new or different functionality to address their requirements end up beholden to the vendor’s timeline. It is so challenging to try to make any changes to these systems, even those that are “open,” that most companies have a team of experts (many of whom are trained and certified by the networking companies, themselves) on hand to keep the network up and running.
The hardware predominance has truly stifled the innovation in the network. It’s time for “out of the box’”thinking; it’s time to free the software and change everything.
Why SDN and NFV: Changes in Networking Today
Thanks to the advances in today’s off-the-shelf hardware or whitebox networking, developer tools and standards, a seismic technology shift in networking to software can finally take place. It’s this shift that underlies all SDN, NFV and NV technologies – software can finally be decoupled from the hardware, so that it’s no longer constrained by the box that delivers it. This is reason why SDN and NFV have become the key to building networks that can:
- Enable Innovation: enabling organizations to create new types of applications, services and business models
- Offer New Services: Create new revenue generating services
- Reduce CapEx: allowing network functions to run on off-the-shelf hardware
- Reduce OpEX: supporting automation and algorithm control through increased programmability of network elements to make it simple to design, deploy, manage and scale networks
- Deliver Agility and Flexibility: helping organizations rapidly deploy new applications, services and infrastructure to quickly meet their changing requirements
Other Changes: SDN and SD-WAN
A rising trend in SDN is software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN). SD-WAN is an extension of SDN and it applies SDN to networking connections covering a wide geographical area. Enterprises have been incorporating SD-WAN more frequently as it brings several benefits. Some of the SD-WAN benefits include connecting and unifying network connections within an enterprise, cost-effectiveness as it eliminates the need for expensive routers, and increased network security via end-to-end encryption. This trend affects SDN and NFV as it adds a new perspective and considerations to the growing need of SDN and NFV in networking.