SDN vital to IoT

internet of things sdn
Credit: Stephen Sauer

Two major emerging network trends, Software-defined networking (SDN) and Internet of Things (IoT), are destined to intersect, with one perhaps dependent on the other.

Experts say that SDN, through its ability to intelligently route traffic and use underutilized network resources, will make it much easier to prepare for the data onslaught of IoT. SDNs will eliminate bottlenecks and induce efficiencies to help the data generated by IoT to be processed without placing a larger strain on the network. 

Indeed, Cisco, which is particularly bullish on IoT, says its Application Centric Infrastructure version of SDN -- as well as its InterCloud multi-cloud provider interface -- is the foundational underpinning of its Internet of Everything strategy.

+MORE ON NETWORK WORLD: Cisco sees SDN, Internet of Things in its 2014 crystal ball+

Stu Bailey, founder and CTO at Infoblox, a maker of network control products, says, “The Internet of Things is going to be a major driver for SDN. If you just have a lot of things, then the most important inhibitor is complexity. The only material that we have to combat an increasing complexity in IT systems is software. There won’t be an Internet of Things without software-defined networks.”

Others aren’t willing to go quite that far, but admit SDN will be a key enabler.  “There’s not a dependency, but SDN can be beneficial for IoT,” says Joe Byrne, head of product strategy for the Digital Networking Group of Freescale Semiconductor, a maker of microcontrollers and digital network processors.

For service providers, however, SDN and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) will be vital to participating in the IoT opportunity, says Dennis Ward, IoT analyst at ACG Research.  “They will have to enhance their service delivery infrastructures to become more agile,” Ward says. “Bringing SDN/NFV capabilities to the solutions will help get them there.”

Some specific SDN capabilities will be particularly useful, Ward says, including service chaining, dynamic load management and bandwidth calendaring.

Service chaining makes it possible to sequence application-specific processing procedures to a given client’s job.  Service chaining will enable an operator to provision, for example, virtual security features like VPNs, firewalls and authentication, and set policy tolerances for performance in line with a given subscriber’s entitlements, Ward says.

“This will ease the provisioning and service management processes as IoT device subscriptions start to increase,” he says.

Dynamic load management will enable operators to monitor and orchestrate bandwidth changes automatically given the overall load of the network.  This will be ideal for global IoT providers preparing for the expected exponential increase in devices and data, Ward says.

Bandwidth calendaring will allow an operator to schedule when and how much traffic a customer or application will need at a specific time.  This is applicable to IoT services since there are devices that only send data periodically at prescribed times, Ward explains.

The software essence of SDN is the enabler, says Infoblox’s Bailey.

“How do you deploy a very complex (system) with less people, not more, in terms of operations?” Bailey asks. “People talk about DevOps; SDN points to no ops. While there may be several technical hurdles to get there, the history of software has shown us that ultimately, as the software industry focuses, they can deploy that level of automation to this kind of complexity problem.”

IDC analyst Brad Casemore agrees.

"Generally, we agree that SDN, properly implemented in the data center, should be well placed to accommodate the connectivity requirements and the potential data deluge that would accrue from the IoT," Casemore says. "SDN's automation, provisioning, programmability, and orchestration should bring a lot of value in an IoT context."

But while SDN may enable IoT, there are perceived challenges -- unfamiliarity, vague security, cost, lack of expertise, etc. Will these challenges have the potential to cripple advances in IoT?

That depends, says Ward.

“The amount of training and incremental cost involved will depend on the individual operator’s staffing and installed base,” he says.  “The ‘lure’ is more efficient access to the new revenue opportunities that the new capabilities provide.

Security on the whole should be improved when applying SDN to IoT applications and services since each application and device can have its own security profile defining the level of protection needed,” Ward adds. “That said, SDN doesn’t necessarily improve or diminish security.  It really depends on the individual [user’s] security posture. However, leveraging SDN’s ability to virtualize, package and target each device with its specific security profile, along with the [ability to add the] right service management processes end-to-end, should maintain and even enhance the overall security of the offerings.”

Freescale’s Byrne believes the familiarity concern is a valid one, especially in enterprise networks that have been steady consumers of Cisco gear for decades.

“SDN is used in the public network, in Carrier Ethernet, where an SDN controller provides a standard interface,” Byrne says. “But in the enterprise, they already have network and nobody’s going to throw it out. Do people know how to use SDN?”

But this may not matter with IoT. Since the two technologies are evolving in parallel, people may come up to speed on both at roughly the same pace.

“In the long run, there are benefits for using SDN in IoT,” Byrne says. “It’s an evolving concept and technology, and they can co-evolve. We can incorporate SDN as we go. Operators are gaining experience in their own data centers today. So SDN is not necessarily an inhibitor, it’s evolving along with IoT.”

IDC's Casemore says the adoption of both depends on the technical wherewithal of the user.

"I’m of the view that IoT is not one undifferentiated market, but an intertwining of several vertical strands," he says. "Companies in those various vertical markets will have varying degrees of operational and technological sophistication, and that will be the primary determinant as to how briskly they adopt not only SDN but also IoT."

Byrne agrees with Ward that the benefits of SDN in IoT extend to security. SDN can facilitate access control and policy, and authentication through centralized programmability. And the traffic engineering capabilities of SDN can help segregate or block network paths where an attack or security breach is detected, he says.

A logically centralized SDN controller can provide insight into where attacks happen and contain and analyze them from a local point, Freescale officials agree. And the link between the controller and IoT devices will be secured as well.

And SDN standards such as OpenFlow can ease interoperability of and security policy distribution among IoT devices, Byrne says.

“How do we add, manage, talk to other IoT devices?” he asks. “With an SDN controllable data plane, it’s a strong enabler of IoT.”

A secure SDN can also facilitate the distribution of intelligence processed by analytics applications to small and large-scale IoT devices, Byrne says.

And any hurdles, real or perceived, will help dictate where SDN-enabled IoT finds its initial roost.

“Like all advances in technology, I think those challenges will help direct what the early adoption and use cases are,” says Bailey. “But historically, security challenges tend to create industries rather than slow down or halt the adoption of a fundamental advancement of a technology. Those challenges will just direct how the market will consume it but I don’t think it will fundamentally limit it at all.”

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