Software-defined networking, or SDN, is a new technology that has the hardware industry in a tizzy. But what exactly is it?
To answer that, we talked to networking veteran Arpit Joshipura, Dell's vice president of marketing for its networking business. He shared the graphic below.
Software-defined networking could seriously upend the way networking hardware is bought and sold, favoring cheaper, simpler boxes running more sophisticated software.
With SDN, some challengers see the potential to topple Cisco. But Cisco, which is making its own investments in SDN, could seize it as a big opportunity. HP and Dell could grow their networking business, too, if they create new products to cater to it.
SDN will certainly fuel a whole new crop of startups including Big Switch Networks, Midokura, Embrane, Contrail Systems, and others.
Point is, it's all up for grabs.
Take a look at this graphic. That spot on the right, circled in red, is what all the fuss is about.
You've got hardware on the left. That's the traditional way of thinking about putting a network together.
The new way, powered by software-defined networking, is on the right. SDN lets you stop worrying about the hardware and focus on the services that run across your network. It lets networks be more flexible.
A network's job is to send data from one point to another. Say you want to view a video posted on the Web. That data has to get from the server hosting the video to your computer. All along the way, it hits various pieces of networking hardware running networking software.
In addition to simply transmitting the data, network equipment also controls its flow. It chooses the fastest or cheapest route, prioritizes some kinds of data (voice or video) over others (email), and keeps it all secure.
SDN inserts a new layer of software in between the hardware dealing with data, and the software that controls it.
This layer tricks applications into thinking they've got the network to themselves when they are reallying sharing it with lots of other applications. It lets more servers use the network, saving companies money. More importantly, it will also let companies information-technology departments move pieces of the network around as they need them.
"The physical network is decoupled from the control plane, so IT can write apps on their own and can give you much faster service," explains Joshipura.
For instance, let's say your board of directors decides to meet in a conference room that isn't set up for videoconferencing. With SDN, IT can, in a heartbeat, add more capacity to accommodate that new usage scenario.
That's very different than how the network works today where someone has to physically install switches and configure them.
So SDN is a good thing. The question is who's going to make the most money off of it.
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