What Defines “Software-Defined Networking”?

“Software-defined networking” has become something of an IT industry buzzword, but its underlying mechanics are more complicated than many people realize.

Earlier this year, IT research firm ESG fielded a survey about the use of software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) in the corporate world. Of the 300 IT professionals surveyed, 225 claimed that their organization was already using or had concrete plans to use SD-WAN.

This prevalence is somewhat remarkable given that SD-WAN only emerged on the scene in earnest a handful of years ago. That said, ESG’s results are best taken with a grain of salt, not because their methodology is suspect, but because as a subset of software-defined networking (SDN), SD-WAN means different things to different people.


Software-Defined Networking: The Basics

The rise of cloud computing triggered an avalanche of software-defined IT approaches (one can get seemingly anything-as-a-service these days), and such a wide variety of choices inevitably leads to some confusion.

In its originally intended use, an SDN technology was anything that enabled IT professionals to separate a network’s control plane from its data plane. More recently, SDN has grown to encompass a broad range of network management techniques related not only to the functional separation of network planes, but to network programmability and automation, as well.

When leveraged correctly, SDN technologies can lead to better — and often more affordable — connectivity, greater network flexibility and responsiveness, and even improved network security. In order to achieve such results, however, IT professionals must take the time to familiarize themselves with the differences between various SDN tools and approaches.

Specific networking problems demand equally specific software-defined approaches, and it takes a great deal of knowledge to pick the right tool for the right job.


Digging a Little Deeper

First and foremost, enterprise IT teams looking for some sort of software-defined solution to improve how they design, construct, or manage their networks need to understand the subtle differences between SD-WAN, network virtualization, and network functions virtualization (NFVs).

SD-WAN: An SD-WAN tool applies the core principle of SDN — the decoupling of a network’s control plane and data plane — to a wide area network. The isolated control plane is (usually) a cloud-based software component that enables a network administrator to manage the profiles and configurations of every device connected to a particular WAN, all through a single, unified interface. The most advanced SD-WAN tools are capable of automating the configuration, monitoring, and maintenance of a WAN’s constituent parts, making network management exponentially simpler.

Network Virtualization: Network virtualization is what makes the decoupling that’s central to WAN possible. An IT administrator can create a virtual network by abstracting logical networking operations and behaviors from their underlying hardware. A virtualization layer enables IT teams to create isolated “channels” on the same networking hardware, meaning bandwidth and other computing resources can be apportioned and reapportioned to various virtual networks as needed. This provides a granularity of management that’s all but impossible to achieve using traditional networking architectures.

Network Functions Virtualization: Enterprises typically run critical networking functions like routing, load balancing, and firewalling on expensive proprietary hardware. By contrast, an NFV approach allows IT teams to utilize commodity hardware — defined by TechTarget as “a device or device component that is relatively inexpensive, widely available, and more or less interchangeable with other hardware of its type” — and sets of virtualized functions bundled into portable virtual machines (VMs) to execute the same service chains they always have with a fraction of the effort, at a fraction of the cost. This functional virtualization eliminates a great deal of the work involved in manually connecting and configuring complex networking hardware.


Leave it to Experienced Networking Professionals

Understanding the subtle differences between terms like SD-WAN, network virtualization, and network functions virtualization will help IT professionals make the most of the many benefits software-defined networking at large has to offer.

At Turn-key Technologies (TTI), our decades of industry experience have prepared us to overcome any networking challenge — software-defined or otherwise. Whether you’re looking for an in-depth network assessment or a managed IT services partner for the long-term, TTI has the know-how to ensure that you achieve all of your network performance and security goals.

By Craig Badrick

June 26, 2018

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