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The promise of software defined networking

John Dix | July 1, 2013
SDN is still an emerging technology. We take a look if it can live up to its promise of redefining networking.

What's more, suppliers will be scrambling to differentiate themselves regarding usability, manageability, performance, capacity, etc., Leary says, so it isn't like SDN just results in networks built using a bunch of cheap, white label boxes.

That said, the real magic may ultimately be in the applications that can fly these SDN networks. Things like traffic engineering, network monitoring and even security controls become apps that run on SDN controllers.

But the ONF hasn't yet specified northbound APIs for these apps. So, while it should be possible to mix and match controllers and switches that support the ONF's southbound OpenFlow API, the SDN applications available to you today will be dependent on the type of controller you employ. Ultimately the industry needs to standardize the northbound connections to provide interoperability.

A question of timing
As far as we have come in so little time, this is still early days for SDN and the industry is still coalescing. As Metzler from Ashton Metzler & Associates points out, it took server virtualization technology almost 10 years to become mainstream, and the SDN OpenFlow protocol was just published at the end of 2009.

Doyle from Doyle Research estimates that the SDN market will only add up to $400 million in 2014. "It's pretty tiny, but we're starting to see adoption. Bleeding edge now. More early adopters to follow."

Lippis says the virtual side of the SDN world — where the technology is used to network virtual resources — is already percolating nicely, but he expects 2013 will see more shops start to pilot SDN tools that control physical switches. Real deployments on the physical side won't occur until 2014, he says, when new switches come out that address performance issues. "Most companies are not doing full-blown physical side SDN because they are waiting for the next generation of silicon to address the performance issue around how many flows a switch can support, how long it takes the controller to figure out the path and then populate the network."

Leary says, "SDN solutions are still rather specialized and solve certain problems. For transition to full SDN-enabled networks, we're probably five, six, seven years away from that."

That's a long time in the high-tech world, which begs the question of whether some shiny new tech will emerge in the meantime and render all this moot. [Also see: "Network administrators look to SDN with hope, concern."]

"I don't think so because what's driving this market is operational costs and bloat," Lippis says.

"The network seems to go through a pretty dramatic change every 10 years or so," Leary agrees, "and it's time we focused our energy on getting the network to run better. I think SDN offers that opportunity."


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