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SDN & OpenFlow: Creating a More Efficient Data Center

Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes

It's hard not to be skeptical about software-defined networking (SDN). Hyped as tech's next big thing, SDN could just as easily end up being the next big bubble to pop. But SDN has something going for it that makes me optimistic: Service providers are in the driver's seat this time, not equipment vendors.

The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) -- which gets credit for coining the term SDN and is responsible for overseeing development of the OpenFlow protocol -- is led by some of the world's largest data center operators, including Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), Facebook , Goldman Sachs Group, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), NTT Communications Corp. (NYSE: NTT), Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) and Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO). Several of those companies and others successfully use SDN for virtual networking in their data centers. Some, such as NTT Communications, are even going as far as developing their own SDN controller software. And these data center operators are sticking together when it comes to working on standards, preferring to focus on the ONF rather than the vendor-dominated Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

SDN is not a technology looking for a market. It is technology that data center and network operators are demanding because they are tired of waiting months or even years for switching and routing equipment vendors to incorporate the features they want and need. And in the case of data center operators in particular, they desperately need networking technology to keep pace with the server virtualization that has revolutionized their businesses.

By separating control from forwarding in the network and then centralizing the control in software, SDN promises to help operators and enterprises accomplish tasks such as network configuration and provisioning, load balancing and security policy enforcement more quickly, more efficiently and less expensively. And centralized control lays the groundwork for SDN's first killer app: data center network virtualization.

The promise of network virtualization motivated VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) to spend a whopping $1.26 billion on startup controller vendor Nicira Networks Inc. -- a move that validated SDN as a technology and OpenFlow as a protocol. Now software startups and incumbent hardware vendors are trying to capitalize on the centralized programmable network controller as one of the first real SDN market opportunities.

The latest Heavy Reading Insider, "OpenFlow Controllers: Implementing SDN in the Data Center explores how operators are using SDN, and it examines the competing ideas for how to deliver applications, such as virtualization, load balancing and policy enforcement. It's too early to draw conclusions about whether standalone SDN controllers will be profitable when the controller functionality could end up bundled with the applications themselves. It's even premature to say that OpenFlow will be the de facto standard for linking control software with equipment, but it has early momentum with data center operators using it today in production environments.

What is clear is that data center and network operators have more power right now than they have ever had in determining how they provision and deliver services. That's a position they've longed to be in for all of the 25 years that I've covered networking, and it certainly gives me hope that SDN is the real deal.

— Dawn Bushaus, Analyst, Heavy Reading Insider

OpenFlow Controllers: Implementing SDN in the Data Center, a 25-page report, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Heavy Reading Insider, priced at $1,595. This report is available for $900. To subscribe, please visit:

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