Real business opportunities that are only possible through SDN

See how two companies are using SDN to do what they couldn't do before

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Network World published a Digital Spotlight on Software Defined Networking (SDN) this past July. The report calls SDN "an emerging reality" and states that "SDN will be the way we build networks going forward."

One aspect of the report is a survey of IT professionals intended to gauge their interest in SDN and the opportunities for using it within their organizations. The survey results are compared to a poll of similar participants a year ago, and they show there is an increased interest year over year, but people are still reserved in adopting SDN. One reason might be they still don't see how it will benefit them. Perhaps a look at some real-life use cases might open their eyes a bit.

I recently talked to Nitin Serro, head of the consulting and development company Serro Solutions, about some of the projects his company has developed for various customers over the past few years. Serro made a name for himself years ago when he helped build out the global networks for Google and other major companies. He parlayed that experience into a successful development firm that now builds SDN applications for industries such as healthcare, transportation, education, information services and aerospace.

One of the more interesting projects Serro Solutions worked on recently involves control of medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites. Serro's client is a global network company that operates terrestrial and satellite resources. The client's customers use those resources to communicate to and from far flung locations around the globe. For example, an energy exploration company might be in the remote North Kerio basin of Kenya and have a need to transmit large amounts of seismic data to a processing facility in Houston, Texas. The only way to make this transmission is through a MEO satellite system.

Now, here's the challenge that existed before the SDN solution was deployed. If the energy company contacted the communications company to make the request for data transmission, the response would be, "Sure, we can make that connection for you in a couple of weeks." The communications company needed that much time to provision the satellite resources to make the necessary connections. Needless to say, customers weren't happy with the long lead time, but they had no alternatives.

Serro Solutions developed an SDN controller application that now manages all of the communications company's resources automatically. End customers go to a website to enter their service request. The energy company, for example, puts in a request to connect from its location in Kenya to the center in Houston. The application calculates the best paths (a primary and a backup) to take to make that connection, which determines what resources should be scheduled.

The next step employs analytics for use in policy decisions. The application pulls in data points such as traffic statistics, telemetry, line usage, weather conditions and more to aid the decision making process. For example, weather data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is used to project any impact weather might have during the anticipated transmission period. If it looks like weather will be a factor for the primary path, the secondary path might be scheduled instead. If the chosen path is within the policy parameters, the application sends the necessary machine codes to configure the resources and schedule their use.

Everything in this workflow is completely automated. There is no human intervention necessary, which means the resources can be provisioned in minutes rather than days or weeks. This allows the communications company to optimize the use of its resources and respond quickly to end customers' requests for service. This is quite a competitive advantage for this particular company.

Serro Solutions is also working with security service providers to use SDN to steer traffic coming into their applications. For example, Serro has a client that provides threat screening for its end customers. This company has all of its customers' traffic routing through its data center to monitor for security threats. In this scenario, the challenge is to manage the bandwidth usage of the incoming traffic. The security service provider wants to eliminate or at least vastly reduce overage charges for consuming too much bandwidth on certain lines while others are barely utilized.

Serro wrote an SDN application that fully automates the process of measuring line bandwidth usage and performance metrics every 30 minutes in order to route traffic in a policy-driven manner. The application starts by collecting data and analyzing each user's experience from the Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) to the service provider's Point of Presence (PoP) following the currently designated routes. Serro is also measuring the bandwidth consumption of all of the ISPs' paths in a particular cloud. The goal is to not exceed the contracted capacity of any of the lines in order to avoid overage charges.

If measurements, which are taken every 30 minutes, determine that a line has poor performance, or use of a specific line is causing or going to cause capacity overage, the SDN application considers moving a designated customer's traffic to a different route. The considerations are myriad and written into policies that are managed by a policy manager component of the SDN application. If a customer's traffic is to be moved to a different path, the directives for this action are translated into machine language and sent to the solution's configuration manager, which makes the routing changes in the network's equipment.

This application can predict if and when the service provider will incur circuit overages so that traffic can be rerouted to save money. Due to the size and complexity of the network, this would be impossible to do manually.

These examples show the business opportunities for SDN. The end results could not be achieved any other way.

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