SDN pioneers gain visibility, control over bandwidth

Software-defined networks can give IT the agility and flexibility to manage today's dynamic data centers and private cloud infrastructures.

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Tavis Coburn

Public school teachers in Enfield, Conn., are active grant-getters. But while the technologies they bring into the classroom from those grants, such as lab carts with Apple iPads, are beneficial to students, they can also wreak havoc on network resources.

"School administrators would tell us that [voice over IP] phone calls were breaking up, and when we looked at utilization, we saw 90 iPads had downloaded a 15-minute educational video from Netflix at the same time," says Enfield CTO Paul Russell.

At one time, Russell would have addressed the problem by increasing the amount of Internet bandwidth to the town's 12 schools, overprovisioning to accommodate occasional bursts in activity from the hundreds of cloud-based educational applications teachers utilize. But Internet access was costing the town $100,000 for four 100Mbps connections (with the state providing a fifth 100Mbps connection), so Russell needed a more cost-effective and efficient solution.

Enfield chose to become a pioneer of software-defined networking, or SDN, to build flexibility and agility into the network that supports 5,000 K-12 students and 4,000 devices. SDN decouples the control and forwarding planes in switches and routers, enabling IT to fine-tune network resource allocation. With an abstracted software-based controller, IT can dynamically manage traffic flows across the enterprise.

Early adopters have charted their own paths to SDN's benefits. Some, like Enfield, are using SDN to gain visibility and control over bandwidth usage. Others are finding its power lies in centralizing and simplifying certain aspects of network management. Many have found the flexibility provided by SDN enables them to re-assign IT staff to other projects.

Research firm IHS Infonetics recently predicted that the market for SDN Ethernet switches and controllers will reach $13 billion in 2019, up from $718 million in 2014. The firm says the SDN market is still in a formative stage.

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