Choosing the Right SDN Reference Architecture

Get value from SDN faster by selecting a reference architecture to speed up the deployment process.

By Arthur Cole | Posted Oct 30, 2015
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Software defined infrastructure is like a blank canvas, on which digital artists can paint virtually any data environment they can imagine. Of course, most organizations have neither the time nor the inclination to start from scratch, so they will most likely select from the many reference architectures hitting the market and then perhaps add a few tweaks of their own for good measure. More of a paint-by-numbers than an original masterwork.

Assessing the various reference architectures will not be easy. Their numerous features and capabilities will have to be carefully weighed against workflows, legacy infrastructure and countless other factors.

The key advantage to the reference architecture, of course, is speed of deployment. Once in place, network programmers can get right to work establishing the rules and parameters governing resource utilization, security, access and virtually everything else needed to run a dynamic, abstract network environment. The downside, of course, is that most RAs are vendor products, which means that while you gain a degree of flexibility over physical infrastructure, you also tie yourself to a particular operating system, such as Juniper’s JunOS that forms the basis for the company’s Unite architecture.

Even open network reference architectures, like the Neutron platform in OpenStack, might not be as flexible as some would imagine, particularly once they are deployed on top of, or in support of, vendor contributions. Dell, Mirantis and Big Switch Networks, for example, recently launched an RA for OpenStack’s Neutron networking module that creates a dynamic fabric solution for Big Data architectures. The idea is to create a modular, plug-in leaf/spine solution using Big Switch’s Big Cloud Fabric and Dell’s Open Networking switch portfolio. There is no reason why other OpenStack-based solutions could not be added to the mix, but in order to gain maximum ease-of-deployment and management flexibility, it’s best to stick with the Dell-Mirantis-Big Switch combo.

Reference architectures are also starting to coalesce around key industry verticals, like healthcare and manufacturing. GE and Cisco recently joined forces to develop an RA for GE’s Brilliant Manufacturing Suite within the Cisco networking environment. The system provides a highly secure network blueprint that captures machine data for use in advanced analytics engines. Ultimately, the set-up should improve efficiency and enable the development of new products at a quicker pace than legacy industrial infrastructure.

And since few data environments are limited to a single facility these days, the enterprise will need a reference architecture to oversee long haul communications to and from the cloud and other remote locations. Equinix recently unveiled one for direct private-line connections to AWS, which should give the enterprise a ready-made solution for the security and performance issues that usually arise when porting workloads over to public resources. The platform leverages the Equinix Cloud Exchange and the Cisco/NetApp FlexPod converged infrastructure solutions to link datacenters to Amazon via the AWS Direct Connect portal. The service is also one of the first to leverage Nimbo, a cloud connectivity solution for both Amazon and Microsoft that Equinix purchased several months ago.

The reference architecture will be a vital tool as the initial deployment phase of abstract data infrastructure unfolds, but the various options should be reviewed carefully because they will set the tone of the overall data environment and drive many of the capabilities needed to support advanced applications and services.

It is practically impossible to predict all of the needs of the emerging digital workforce as it embraces software defined infrastructure, so the ideal reference architecture should be flexible as well as expansive. If it is too rigid, it may limit development options in the future; too loose and it might not provide a stable-enough base for future needs.

Take the time to get it right at the outset and save a fair bit of trouble down the road.

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