SDN: Secret Sauce to the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) will provide a major challenge for network operators, but SDN and NFV can help.

Dan Pitt

September 4, 2014

5 Min Read
SDN: Secret Sauce to the Internet of Things

The technology industry has been all a-buzz with the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT). This growing category refers to an ecosystem of connected devices and services ranging from smart cars, connected appliances, healthcare services and monitors, wearables, and connected cities, among many other "things."

Do you think this is the stuff of only the future? Reports from Cisco estimated that there were 8.7 billion connected devices in 2012, with some 50 billion devices expected to connect to the Internet by 2020. That's a sobering number for network operators -- the arrival of more connected devices and growing customer expectations for connectivity will directly affect them.

As the breadth of connected devices continues to expand, connected services are also emerging, taking a toll on limited network capacity. Networks are facing a tipping point with the growth of mobile data and need to simultaneously operate over multiple wireless technologies. It is unclear what the economic impact will be to the networks, but it is clear that they will grow and become more complex. One characteristic of many of the devices is that they are extremely power-limited and cost-sensitive. Another is that when they govern industrial processes their communications are extremely time-sensitive. Therefore their communication protocols and technologies might have to be quite specific to their application environment and their priorities and Quality of Service (QoS) need to be maintained across multi-application networks. And while their individual traffic rates might be small, the sheer number of devices means that the volume of aggregated traffic will be large. Thus the rise of IoT means that networks will inevitably be handling an influx in big data and an increase in network traffic. Not properly prepared to handle this increase in activity, networks could become paralyzed.

What can network operators do now to prepare for IoT and avoid crippling their networks with the increased traffic? IoT will require networks to become more agile to accommodate the increased amount of transmitted data along with the expansion of connected devices. In looking ahead to what is in store for networks and IoT, SDN is a viable solution to manage the increased traffic and its QoS.

As a network architecture, SDN allows for network control to be decoupled from the forwarding plane and the forwarding plane to be directly programmable by the control plane. The power-limited and cost-limited nature of many of the devices in the IoT makes them ideal candidates to be optimized solely for their application and basic forwarding, not for network control. Mobile networks are strong candidates for SDN implementation as they already maintain a separation of the control and data planes. With SDN, enterprises and carriers gain vendor-independent control over the entire network from a single logical point, which greatly simplifies network design and operation. SDN allows IT to leverage the simplified network design to deploy new services in a matter of hours or days, not weeks or months, and create new services for differentiation. SDN provides a flexible tool to improve the management of the networks. These network functions can now be implemented in software processes that operators can control centrally and provision automatically with orchestration tools. In effect, these SDN-based processes constitute the network's "brain," which can communicate to the "body" (switches, routers, gateways, etc.) in an automatic, open, and programmable way.

Another element in changing networks is NFV, a complementary technology to SDN. NFV allows operators to architect networks by evolving standard IT virtualization technology to consolidate network equipment types into industry standard, high-volume servers, switches, and storage located in data center, network node and end-user premises. NFV provides the flexibility needed to quickly and easily integrate new services at various locations without the need for new equipment. Combining NFV and SDN also opens the door for new revenue by enabling carriers to introduce new services quickly and to capitalize on excess network capacity (even momentarily) to offer ad-hoc, on-demand services. The IoT will benefit by slotting right into a wider network already managed by SDN and NFV and thus will be more easily adopted with high efficiency.

The inefficient stiffness of traditional architectures is proving to be dated and obsolete. SDN is introducing a practical, scalable and efficient way to leverage network infrastructure and technology communications. With current networking technologies, each network device must be configured to handle maximum traffic, though it is unlikely every network element will experience maximum traffic at the same time. When we look at the IoT revolution, SDN offers promise by providing the opportunity to control networks according to the needs of each organization, each subnetwork, each type of "thing," each application.

To accommodate the arrival of IoT, networks need an architecture that can cost-effectively scale services using software while also eliminating the need for large investments in proprietary hardware platforms. The new wave of connected devices and services will all be shared on the same -- often-congested -- networks as current PCs, tablets, smartphones, and video sources and sinks. The coming of age of new devices and services means that these networks will have to be optimized to handle what is being asked of them, dynamically and often on short notice.

While many are excited for the truly connected lifestyle, for the industrial Internet, and for IoT to come to fruition, network operators are scrambling to adopt SDN to best handle what is on the horizon.

— Dan Pitt, Executive Director, Open Networking Foundation

About the Author(s)

Dan Pitt

Dan Pitt is Executive Director of the Open Networking Foundation, joining on its public launch in March 2011. Dan spent twenty years developing networking architecture, technology, standards, and products at IBM Networking Systems in North Carolina, IBM Research Zurich in Switzerland, Hewlett Packard Labs in Palo Alto, and Bay Networks in Santa Clara, Cal., where he was vice president of the Bay Architecture Lab. When Nortel bought Bay Networks, Dan became vice president of Nortel's Enterprise Solutions Technology Center, spanning nine cities on four continents. From 2002–2007 he served as dean of the school of engineering at Santa Clara University and holder of the Sobrato Chair in Engineering. From 2007–2011 he advised and served in executive operational roles in startup companies in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, most recently as an executive in residence at the Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, Cal. Dan received a B.S. in mathematics (magna cum laude) from Duke University and an M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Illinois. He taught as an adjunct professor at Duke University and the University of North Carolina for ten years and has fifty publications and one patent to his credit.

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