What is SDN and where software-defined networking is going

Software-defined networking (SDN) established a foothold in cloud computing, intent-based networking, and network security, with Cisco, VMware, Juniper and others leading the charge.

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SD-WAN lets networks route traffic based on centrally managed roles and rules, no matter what the entry and exit points of the traffic are, and with full security. For example, if a user in a branch office is working in Office365, SD-WAN can route their traffic directly to the closest cloud data center for that app, improving network responsiveness for the user and lowering bandwidth costs for the business.

"SD-WAN has been a promised technology for years, but in 2019 it will be a major driver in how networks are built and re-built," Anand Oswal, senior vice president of engineering in Cisco’s Enterprise Networking Business, said a Network World article earlier this year.

It's a profoundly hot market with tons of players including Cisco, VMware, Silver Peak, Riverbed, Aryaka, Fortinet, Nokia and Versa.

IDC says the SD-WAN infrastructure market will hit $4.5 billion by 2022, growing at a more than 40% yearly clip between now and then.

From its VNI study, Cisco says that globally, SD-WAN traffic was 9% of business IP WAN traffic in 2017 and will be 29% of business IP WAN traffic by 2022. In addition, SD-WAN traffic will grow five-fold from 2017 to 2022, a compound annual growth rate of 37%.

What is in the future for SDN?

Going forward there are a couple of developments to watch for, Cisco's Scheibe said. One involves the increased ability to automate the provisioning of data center services, to make it easier to horizontally extend access to data. The second expected development is the ability to more easily allow customers to work across domains to monitor and track what is going on across the infrastructure. 

According to Cisco’s most recent Global Cloud Index research, SDN might streamline traffic flows within the data center such that traffic is routed more efficiently than it is today. “In theory, SDN allows for traffic handling policies to follow virtual machines and containers, so that those elements can be moved within a data center in order to minimize traffic in response to bandwidth bottlenecks,” Cisco stated. 

Most major hyperscale data centers already employ flat architectures and SDN and storage management, and adoption of SDN/NFV or network function virtualization (which virtualizes network elements) within large-scale enterprise data centers has been rapid, Cisco stated. Over two-thirds of data centers will adopt SDN either fully or in a partial deployment by 2021. As a portion of traffic within the data center, SDN/NFV is already transporting 23%, growing to 44% by 2021.

Cisco found that there are also ways in which SDN/NFV can lead to an increase in both data center traffic and in general Internet traffic:

  • Traffic engineering enabled by SDN/ NFV supports very large data flows without compromising short lived data flows, making it safe to transport large amounts of data to and from big data clusters.
  • SDN will allow video bitrates to increase, because SDN can seek out highest bandwidth available even midstream, instead of lowering the bitrate according the available bandwidth for the duration of the video, as is done today.

The future of SDN is shaped by operational needs and software innovation, Bushong said. “While trends like cloud-native design certainly impact SDN engineering, the operational side of SDN is likely to really benefit from the innovation happening around machine learning and AI, and these innovations also benefit from the accelerated pace of software and hardware innovation happening in prominent public clouds.”

Video: How Does Software-Defined Networking Work?

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