Software-Defined Networks Promise Innovation

SDNs complement software-defined servers and storage in agile, cost-effective data centers.

Among colleges and universities that have made the move to software-defined servers and to software-defined storage, many find that a third option — software-defined networking (SDN) — fits right in. The virtualization of these three pillars of the IT function into a software-defined data center (SDDC) offers high yield for less cost, making it a promising solution — think more agile, more efficient and cost-effective.

Indeed, as traditional networks have grown more complex, they risk becoming more hindrance than help. SDNs empower IT staff with the same agility they find in virtualization, offering big shortcuts in the amount of time it takes to deliver services. Software updates replace manual configuration of hardware components. Staff also benefit from the increased control of centralized network management. What’s more, SDNs provide these advantages at a lower cost than traditional networks, thanks to increased automation and reduced equipment costs.

Combined, these advantages just might offer IT teams the biggest reward of all: innovation. Experts predict that within the next few years, SDNs could become a springboard for creativity and customization. Think of an environment analogous to iOS and Android smartphones, with IT staff establishing a central controller that runs apps for security, authentication and other functions.

Evolving Side by Side

One institution, Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has an eye on the innovation that may emerge in networking as a result of cloud-based capabilities. In 2015, Marist’s Software Defined Networking Innovation Lab — which works with the OpenFlow standard to study more efficient ways to control physical and virtual networks — partnered with IBM and Brocade to add computing capabilities to its repertoire.

The Marist partnership gives students access to IBM’s Cloud Orchestrator, which makes it easier to configure, provision and deploy services in public, private and hybrid clouds. They’re also using Brocade’s Vyatta 5400 vRouter, designed for virtual, cloud and physical networking.

Robert Cannistra, an IT and computer science lecturer at Marist, points to the parallel evolution of the cloud and virtual networks, with heavy migration to the former driving a fundamental rethinking of the latter. Today’s networks must be flexible, integrated and automated. They also, of course, need to accommodate mobile users, data and applications.

Poised to Grow

Among entities that have transitioned to SDDCs, three goals have emerged that IT managers would be wise to pursue, because they help institutions take full advantage of SDDC benefits.

First, reduce the number of network and storage appliances and physical servers, a reduction that is potentially significant. Second, leverage new efficiencies to consolidate staff duties or free up staff resources to perform other duties. Third, achieve savings on future migrations as a result of the greater ease of provisioning virtual hardware that SDDCs make possible.

SDN is evolving quickly, and experts forecast significant growth in the next few years. To cite one success story: Google’s migration to SDN boosted its network utilization rate from 60 to 65 percent to 95 percent — an improvement that’s hard to beat. Ultimately, the appeal of SDN is that it mirrors, and empowers IT teams to mirror, the best of today’s technology: agile, flexible, scalable and customizable.

If SDN can save money along the way, that’s almost the icing on the cake.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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Jun 23 2016