Is SDN Real? You Bet It Is

While being bombarded by promises for a new technology – especially one as radical as SDN – it’s natural for IT executives to ask a simple question: How real is it? Who’s using it? How are they using it? What benefit are they deriving from it?

No question, SDN is in its early stages. But it already has an impressive list of household names, telecommunications carriers, and academic networks among its adherents. Here’s some of its early adopters:

Facebook. Earlier this month, social media behemoth Facebook revealed more details about the SDN deployment at its new Altoona, Pa., facility, described by Jonathan Vanian on GigaOm. “While it might be common for people to think that sending a query to Facebook is not a data-intensive task, once the information hits a data center that query actually multiplies as it ricochets to and from various Facebook machines. Because of this multiplier effect, Facebook has to make sure it can account for all that inter-data-center traffic and ensure its system doesn’t slow down as it handles billions of user requests.”

To address these issues, Facebook transformed what were once physical clusters into virtual clusters, a strategy that reduces the number of physical devices necessary and increases the flexibility of the network. Is there a “like” button for this?

Goldman Sachs. Financial services companies have always been on the forefront of technology, simply because the faster they can make trades, the more likely they are to make money. As Marcia Savage noted in Network Computing earlier this year in her coverage of the Open Networking Summit, “With a complex environment of specialized networks, Goldman Sachs is eager to reap the efficiency and cost-savings promises of software-defined networking.”

According to Goldman Sachs managing director and technology fellow Matthew Liste, quoted in NetworkWorld, “We really desire commodity scale architectures, software-defined everything.” Liste added, “We‘re big believers in open standards and open architectures…so we have a say in how things evolve.”

As Savage noted, the firm has tried a variety of approaches, including both commercial and open source systems for network overlays. And according to Liste, “We haven't seen a single approach that will get us closer [but] we're confident we'll get there over time. This is absolutely a marathon."

Google. Google Distinguished Engineer Amin Vahdat described its SDN deployment at the same conference. As Brent Salisbury wrote in Network Computing at the time, “Vahdat noted that the growth of Google's back-end (east-west) network is quickly surpassing its front-end user-facing network. This growth is expensive because the network doesn't scale economically like storage and compute do. The operating expense of compute and storage becomes cheaper per unit as scale increases, but this is not the case with the network.”

That’s why Google has separated hardware and software for the network. It no longer has to rely on hardware specs, and can innovate solely in software. It also gets “logically centralized control that will be more deterministic, more efficient and more fault-tolerant,” along with more automation. The upshot: faster innovation, and who’s not searching for that?

Kanazawa University Hospital. This hospital in Kanazawa, Japan, has deployed SDN to become more responsive to the rapidly evolving healthcare industry. As one of its executives explained, “A network that requires setting changes and rewiring every time a new piece of equipment is connected cannot be called stable. We needed a flexible, safe, and secure network infrastructure that would allow us to respond immediately to the rapid changes that occur in our field, provide independent security for each department, and be easy to manage.” Hear, hear.

As Nuage Networks CEO Sunil Khandekar noted in this video interview with Light Reading’s Ray Le Maistre, his company has 15 deployments in 18 months. Unfortunately, not all customers want to go on record that they’re using new technology. They like the strategic advantage. They like that their competitors don’t know how they’re running their systems.

What this means is that the deployments cited here are really the tip of the SDN iceberg. There’s a lot more going on that we don’t see.


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.