|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2014|
|Topic:||Software Defined Networking is poised to define the future of the data centre|
Prenesh has been Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Internet Solutions, since 2005 and is also a Director on the board of Dimension Data Middle East and Africa. He joined Internet Solutions as an engineer in 1998 and has held various technical and senior operations positions. He is responsible for the overall technology strategy for the company in all geographies where the company has a presence. In addition to overseeing the daily operations and maintenance of the company’s ICT infrastructure, Prenesh sets the company’s technology standards and governance practices.
Prior to joining Internet Solutions, Prenesh worked at IBM as a Technical Specialist.
Qualifications: NHD EE Engineering (Durban Institute of Technology).
The current state of affairs is unsustainable, characterised by high and increasing costs to operate networks and a shortage of people to manage them. Enter Software Defined Networking (SDN), which enables on-demand provisioning of networks and network services. SDN will help networks keep up with the speed of change that has come about by the virtualisation of other data centre resources, and will provide the perfect supplement to cloud computing.
Across Africa the increase in demand for bandwidth is exponential, putting pressure on networks. The increase in demand is resulting in operators having to add equipment to their networks, and the benefits of SDN point to it as the most practical and cost effective solution.
The networking technologies that drive today’s data centres and every other piece of networked equipment for that matter, are facing serious technical limitations as the market demands more agile and customisable networking technology. With IT departments facing ever-decreasing budgets and are required to squeeze the most from their networks using cumbersome management tools and processes, there is a major demand for a new technology infrastructure that will enable more diverse usage scenarios. Existing network architectures were simply not designed to handle the demands that organisations require. Global Carriers also face similar challenges as demand for mobile bandwidth increases.
The fact is that the status quo is not sustainable. The current state of affairs is characterised by high costs to operate networks and these costs continue to rise, and there is a shortage of people to manage them. And so the industry is now finding itself where change is not only necessary but critical. Enter Software Defined Networking (SDN), which enables on-demand provisioning of networks and network services. Basically, SDN will help networks keep up with the speed of change that has come about by the virtualisation of other data centre resources and will provide the perfect supplement to cloud computing. By virtualising the network through a programmable interface, much better support is available to customers and it is possible to access network resources without having to negotiate holdups created by configuring networks and provisioning services.
What does SDN do? SDN separates the decision-making systems from the network traffic systems in a network. This essentially removes the reliance on network hardware to moderate all aspects of the network’s traffic, and replaces it with software defined management solutions that is also able to address more intricate aspects of the network. SDN inserts an abstraction layer between the traffic packets and the control commands, which means that you no longer need to have sophisticated routers, for example, at every point in a network where decision-making needs to happen. It means you can use standardised hardware interacting via standardised software but still localise each product to suit the market it is in.
For network operators this means you can use standard, low-spec devices on a network in a country to cover the last mile, and manage all the intelligence around routing, traffic prioritisation and so on from a central point using virtual routers.
SDNs allow the control functions of data centre switches to be run separately from the servers they manage, allowing more flexibility in the control of computer networks. Although there are SDN solutions currently available, the concept of SDN is rather ‘futuristic’ much like the concept of Cloud Computing was in the early days of connected-computing. By ‘futuristic’ I mean that it does not enjoy widespread adoption, although major telecommunications companies are adopting and deploying SDN and it is gaining more traction both at the corporate and industry level.
With the advent of Cloud computing within the business environment, data sovereignty has become an issue of contention as companies store data on servers hosted within different geographical locations and across borders. By resolving the way that the data is transported between server locations, the issue of data sovereignty can be resolved with the use of SDN architecture.
As we move to an open source, open interface world, businesses will become less reliant on the need to purchase an entire ecosystem from one supplier, instead, Software Defined Networks are able to utilise a variety of hardware solutions which can be considered ‘dumb’ until software is programmed to operate the network according to the companies requirements. This eliminates the problems that are often associated with static hardware configurations.
At the technology level, the real excitement about SDN is not necessarily at the device, controller and network level with the focus on getting the network to run better, but rather the excitement is because things such as traffic engineering, network monitoring and security controls become apps that run on SDN controllers. The business benefits of SDN add to its attractiveness. Both CapEx and OpEx can be reduced, with SDN supporting pay as you grow models that eliminate unnecessary overprovisioning, and the ability to automote provisioning and orchestration reducing overall management time and optimising service availability and reliability positively impacting OpEx. SDN also delivers agility and flexibility allowing companies to quickly adapt to their changing requirements, with the rapid deployment of new applications, services and infrastructure that are a key enablement feature of SDN.
When something new hits the scene, and first coming to prominence in 2009 it is a relatively new network advancement, there are always supporters and detractors. We are still not at the point of full SDN-enabled networks, but we are moving closer. There is a strong industry movement that supports SDN and a number of big suppliers have moved rapidly in an effort to keep customers, and also to creep into customer bases of other suppliers, but there are also those that want to slow down the efforts, perhaps for self-preservation purposes. For some, it will be a difficult to see the world as a place where functional software items are abstracted from hardware. Whatever the view and strategy, SDN is the way forward and will provide the modern organisation with the best flexibility and support.
When you read about the benefits of SDN, there is a long list. They include: leveraging the cloud for service delivery, building more programmable and customised networks and transforming traditional networks into high value-added service delivery platforms. From an Africa perspective this could realise significant benefits in areas such as education and healthcare, which are critical focus areas across the continent. Imagine a situation where global, national and regional educational and healthcare institutions can effectively share infrastructure with other organisations, without compromising security and also remaining independent in terms of their policies. Equally, because of the level of programmability SDN allows, coupled with the control and automation, the network is highly scalable and flexible and can easily adopt to the changing needs of both the healthcare and education industries, in exactly the same way SDN can for the corporate market.
This new era of open-networking must be a consideration for government and industry bodies alike and investment must be made in this direction, rather than investing in the traditional network hardware and software platforms. The network of the future will be software defined, and the time for this future network is now, especially in Africa.
SDN also takes account of one of the big talking points of the day – data sovereignty – because it can shape packet routes to address border-control regulation and data-privacy fears. We all know that even if the start and end point of data are in the same country, no-one can be certain that the data might not cross and re-cross national borders somewhere along the way. At face value it may not seem alarming, but in terms of legislative compliance this can be serious. Why software-defined networking is a solution is because it allows network operators to program a network’s control panel from a central interface. General instructions can be sent across the entire network, or just sections of it, without ever having to go into the physical network and reconfigure boxes, via OpenFlow protocol.
Practically, if an operator can offer border control for cloud or network services it could be a huge differentiator. Organisations are obliged to comply and prove compliance with data sovereignty, but with software defined networking the full benefit of free-flowing data could be realised. If an operator can guarantee that data will never stray across defined borders, they would be extremely popular. There are also other benefits of being able to shape the logical network structure and the routes running across it.
The applicability of SDN is widespread, and the principle of using software to flexibly manage the network according to demand, traffic type and profitability and deploying less intelligent hardware that is cheaper than currently deployed is hugely attractive. Taking the above and combining it with the openness that SDN promises and you have a extremely cost effective environment that can also support a range or new revenue generating services. The fact is that cost savings will not be the only driver towards mass adoption of SDN, operators that move quickly will see revenue impact as well because they will have the advantage of being able to get more services to market faster than others that are relying on a less agile, and innovative network environment.
Across Africa the increase in demand for bandwidth is exponential, putting pressure on networks. The increase in demand is resulting in operators having to add equipment to their networks, and the benefits of SDN point to it as the most practical and cost effective solution with the maximum impact and return. This will be the catalyst for the transformation towards SDN.
Whilst SDN is touted by many industry experts as a technology with a lot of potential it’s still in its infancy and still very much driven by the hype that surrounds it. With many technologies this could be one area where Africa can take the lead. The market for change is ripe, the demand and opportunity for operators is obvious, and the benefits hard to argue.
As this technology matures we will uncover the practical applications for this technology but for now, educating the market and looking into what the future of SDN holds for us, should be our priority when engaging with the media on this topic.