Every so often, a new term emerges at which everyone raises their eyebrows in derision. Then it suddenly becomes an industry standard and everyone’s left feeling a bit sheepish. A couple of years ago, it was “cloud computing”. Today, it’s probably going to be “Software Defined Networking” or “SDN”. If you don’t know what it is, then you’re in good company, but Accenture recently (in their 2013 Technology Vision report) named it as one of the major growth areas in the “virtualisation” of business: the industry sector is set to increase from circa $1m to $1b in the next few years. So you’d better a) get used to hearing the term and b) read this handy crash-course guide as to the specifics!
As the name suggests, SDN is simply an approach to networking that removes the control of the network’s parameters from the physical infrastructure upon which it depends. So, instead of being based around a central server or series of servers and the computers to which they are connected, a software-defined network can be run entirely virtually from a centralised command console. In a conventional network, when a packet of information is sent to a switch, certain pre-defined rules dictate where it will be sent next. With SDN, administrators can direct, block, and prioritise traffic in the network without ever having to leave their seat.
What does this mean for you and your company? Principally it means greater flexibility, with SDN allowing you to relocate your entire business network into the cloud while still maintaining full control over how your network is managed. You’ll be able to direct and prioritise bandwidth more efficiently, and have full virtual control over who gets what, which will be especially useful for VOIP and video streaming. This capability removes one of the major limitations of conventional networks that set your bandwidth allocation in stone. You’ll also be able to avoid making costly investments in additional hardware by investing in software instead. With a fully-flexible SDN-driven, cloud-based system, you and your colleagues will be able to carry out even the most vital tasks from a moderately spec-ed ultrabook, without having to worry about your bandwidth allowance. And when things go down to the wire, you’ll be able to adjust network parameters with extreme ease to accommodate your immediate needs.
Don’t be fooled into thinking hardware is going to disappear completely, though – you’ll still need it to actually run your fancy new software network. SDN does mean, however, that you’ll save a lot on not having to purchase in-house server systems. You’ll also be able to increase the lifespan of any network hardware you have lying around by bypassing its current limitations to run SDN-driven solutions. Although the technology generally isn’t quite market-ready at this point, and will probably only be viable for larger companies while the costing and gremlins are all worked out, you’re likely to see SDN become the last great leap towards the total virtualisation of computer networking within the next 20 years. Definitely keep an eye on this new technology, since – like cloud computing – it’s going to become one of the most important advances in information technology and will, in the future, transform the way we think about and use computers.