Software-Defined Networking

Antonella Corno, product marketing manager, Cisco, says:

In 2013, we saw the idea of software-defined networking (SDN) become an integral part of IT conversations globally. As this technology evolves, the term “network programmability” can be used to capture the idea of opening up the network. This will allow customers to become increasingly involved with the network through software application programming interfaces (APIs).

More than ever before, it has become imperative that the technical and business sides of the IT world work closely together. Traditionally, network designers and engineers have focused on the network infrastructure and the technology underlying it. They receive requirements from the business side of their organization and use detailed knowledge of the infrastructure to apply those requirements seamlessly in a functioning network.

Today, however, the IT experts must be able to articulate the business value of any specific technological solution. Conversely, the business side needs to work more closely with the technical side in order to make cognizant decisions. A good example of this joint need can be illustrated with today’s cloud technology. The complexity and variety of available solutions requires cloud architects and business analysts to have a strong understanding of each other’s needs to guarantee a complete and effective integration of the infrastructure with the required business applications. Network programmability enables this cooperation between technical and business groups by creating an open, programmable environment that permits a more dynamic, streamlined exchange of information and integration of infrastructure and applications.

Cisco conducted a Global Impact Survey in 2013, stating that 71 percent of IT professionals anticipated using SDN technologies during the year. One-third mentioned the rapid scalability of the network infrastructure as the reason; another third referred to the cost savings as their motivation.

SDN has been embraced by many IT vendors due to its ability to automate network functionality in the realm of software. However, transferring functionality from hardware to software, and outside of the network, should not be considered a one size fits all solution. Another vital aspect of SDN is that it can be utilized as an open extension of the network that meets the needs of specific customer use cases. When customers are faced with problems where a programmatic approach to application and infrastructure integration will benefit customer deployment, SDN can be a powerful tool.

A seamless evolution will be a strong motivator for customers looking to implement SDN technologies. Speed of interaction and flexibility in exploiting new business applications and resolving complex IT situations will be essential, as will the elements of simplification, openness and integration.

Being able to nondisruptively expose the existing network infrastructure to a more in-depth integration with business applications will allow customers to leverage the consolidated knowledge of networking vendors and skilled professionals operating in the field today. This will also allow them to integrate the IT teams behind these applications more effectively, and enable them to capitalize on their skills and knowledge to improve upon the infrastructure.

A network programmability solution that encompasses both network infrastructure and business applications always starts with the customer’s needs. It is not the product itself that determines the direction the customer will take, but rather the use case, exploiting programmatic APIs to gain deep insight into, and control of, network traffic.

Data center host or cloud service providers, for example, can utilize a programmatic approach to access the network in a dynamic way, specifically to improve the security features that it offers. An open, customizable environment can facilitate the integration of complex applications such as web hosting in the cloud space.

A holistic network-programmable environment allows the user to access various layers: a virtualized infrastructure layer with a middleware layer above it, and a cloud orchestration and automation layer on top of that. The user is able to navigate through these layers with applications that utilize a myriad of APIs.

This transformation does, however, come with a distinct challenge: well-implemented network automation requires a more in-depth knowledge of how a network operates due to its complexity. Although automation provides the speed, simplicity and capability of changing a multitude of devices faster, it requires greater expertise due to the higher risk involved. Those with fundamental networking experience would ideally lead this transition, as they are equipped with the knowledge to build the bridge from network infrastructure to the application environment. Application developers who are implementing SDN technologies, as well as those at the business application layer will need a tighter grasp of the new world they operate in. This world being one that moves them beyond the operating system to a more distributed environment that incorporates a rich network data structure and functionality.

A network programmability workforce where technical and business skills come together and talent gaps are filled is paramount to the success of this emerging technology. This will however, require everyone to work more closely together and move out of their comfort zones. The network designers of the future will need to be able to talk to business application developers and customers to understand their needs and deliver APIs that they can leverage. Designers will also need to translate the business needs to network developers who will create an application that is well integrated into the network.

The success of this technology relies on the developers ability to comprehend the business concerns driving the designer, and the designer will need to grasp what an API can provide, how to use and leverage it, and have a fundamental understanding of how code is developed to create applications that tap the network layers of complexity.

The traditional network engineer, whose main concern was to deploy the network, is now required to know how to troubleshoot a networking environment that is virtualized and more software-rich than ever before. What was once solely a network crash could now be a software crash and will require a comprehensive understanding of the virtual network in order to fix it.

Tomorrow’s workforce will rely heavily on these evolving job roles as well as the new ones that will be created. Given the broad nature of the network programmability space, multiple IT professionals with varying skills will be needed.

Industry-leading networking providers will be ready with network programmability products to spearhead this inevitable change. Training to help network developers, designers and engineers build the bridges between them to function as a powerful team in this new environment is crucial.