By: Co-Founder & CTO of Stateless, Inc. Eric Keller

The business model of data center operators, including colocation providers and cloud-managed service providers (MSPs), requires that they provide compelling products and services for their tenant end-users while also being incredibly efficient from an operational perspective to maintain margins. 

A key step in improving operational efficiency has been the emergence of the software-defined data center, which emphasizes automated, agile provisioning, and management of compute, storage, and networking resources for tenants. Perhaps most impactful on creating a truly efficient data center has been the evolution of software-defined networking capabilities over the past decade.

With the advent of software-defined networking and fast following technologies like software-defined WAN and the newly introduced software-defined interconnect, data center providers have the ability to rapidly and efficiently build networking products within and beyond the data center like never before. 

The first introduction of software control in data center networks came from the introduction of software-defined networking (SDN) in the late 2000s. The name is a play on software-defined radio, and the technology itself introduced programmable software control over network switches in a more standardized manner.  

While SDN is a broad term that has been oversubscribed today, it most commonly refers to an approach that has the control plane separated from the data plane for centralized, programmable control. As a switching technology, this included the OpenFlow standard which opened up the underlying hardware through open APIs to allow software to directly program the tables on switches (as opposed to legacy switches configured through command-line interfaces). SDN also includes software switching made popular as a means to programmatically control connectivity between virtual machines in a virtualized environment.

Nicera, now VMware NSX, was the first to introduce SDN into the data center. Since this initial deployment, many other commercial players have brought this technology to market including Cisco, Juniper, Ciena and many more. 

In deploying SDN, data center operators are able to more efficiently provision, manage and control networks within their facilities. Providers can use SDN to make storage and compute resources available to tenants more quickly and as a key component of tenant self-service portals. But, most in the industry see the technology as a building block for creating a truly software-defined data center as opposed to a standalone technology. 

One of the key building blocks SDN has created is software-defined wide area networks, frequently referred to as SD-WAN. SD-WAN extends software-defined networking concepts beyond the data center to the wide-area network (WAN) links. The value proposition of SD-WAN was that it provided a more cost-effective and agile way to control the WAN than commercially leased lines or MPLS. 

This covers approaches taken by Google (with B4) and Microsoft (with SWAN) to optimize through software-defined control over their wide-area backbone network interconnecting their data centers. This also covers technology which helps create secure network overlays on top of the public Internet, enabling branch offices to connect to each other in a much simpler manner.

Like SDN, SD-WAN decoupled control and data planes while also providing centralized control providing more rapid and efficient provisioning and management.  Unlike SDN, SD-WAN allows users all over the world to connect into the software-defined network. 

For colocation providers and cloud MSP, SD-WAN is a key tool in providing tenants with a cost-effective and efficient way to connect core data center footprints to edge sites or branch offices and was the first venture in extending software-defined control beyond intra-data center networking. 

Another key innovation in the software-defined data center using SDN as a building block is software-defined interconnect or SD-IX. SD-IX enables programmatic control and automated management of security and routing infrastructure at infrastructure hubs like colocation data centers, Internet exchange points (IXPs), or cloud MSP nodes that interconnect multiple networks and local end-points. SD-IX abstracts these hubs to provide visibility and control to allow programmatic and automated management over the entire interconnected infrastructure.

The decentralization of enterprise workloads has created a market need for the dynamic provisioning and management of networks beyond the four walls of the data center. These networks can include, for example, direct connect links to hyperscaler cloud providers or transit links from network providers. End-points can include, for example, gateways within a colocation cage or a private cloud compute end-point.  

In deploying SD-IX, colocation providers have the ability to build new networking products while improving operational efficiency across core network capabilities that monitor, secure, and optimize network traffic. They also provide cost-efficiency for their tenants that have to undertake cumbersome deployments that connect endpoints not covered by SD-WAN footprints. 

In a recently published white paper by Stateless, details are provided on how the organization’s SD-IX technology enables colocation providers and Cloud MSPs to create a software-defined interconnect fabric that connects tenants to portfolio data centers and hyperscale clouds such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and Microsoft Azure — all of which offer Layer 3 functionality. This new capability gives providers the power to monetize and easily deliver new services and expand their business to be more competitive and profitable.

Datacenter operators are adopting software-defined networking capabilities to completely reshape their business model and how they deliver services to their tenants. We are only at the forefront of this evolution and many more are certain to come as enterprises undertake further digital transformation efforts creating the need for more sophisticated products from their data center partners.  

About the Author

Eric Keller is co-founder and CTO for Stateless, Inc. in Boulder, Colorado. Prior to Stateless, his work was focused on the redesign of network connectivity through research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Shortly after completing the research, Keller co-founded Stateless and has been growing a team to tackle networking challenges that others deem impossible.