Reassessing the Network Edge in the Age of SDN

The network edge is set for an evolution as SDN and the cloud reshape the concept of the enterprise data center.

By Arthur Cole | Posted Feb 27, 2015
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Among all the changes taking place in the data center these days, an entirely new new network edge is one of the most critical for the enterprise.

The edge has always been a crucial component of the data center, but by and large its responsibilities have centered on security and connectivity. With distributed architectures coming to the fore, many organizations are finding that the edge needs to be a lot more flexible, and intelligent, in order to fully support evolving business models.

In the first place, the edge’s inward-facing capabilities need to be more in tune with core infrastructure, according to Avaya. The company recently introduced its SDN Fx platform, designed to integrate the edge with primary data center systems. Designed as an alternative to standard network overlays, SDN Fx utilizes key components like a vSwitch-based open networking adapter (ONA), a fabric orchestrator, and a campus-wide communications software stack to enable greater automation and programmability of edge devices without having to rip and replace legacy infrastructure.

But as networks become more software-driven, enterprise executives will have to get used to the idea of an edge that is not nearly as defined as it is now. SDN and NFV work hand in hand to deliver virtual appliances, including edge devices, wherever they are needed, says ChannelPartner’s Lorna Garey. That means capabilities like load balancing and WAN optimization can be hosted on a remote cloud and delivered to a data environment miles away. Standards are still emerging in this area, however, so it would be wise to avoid treading too deep in these waters until providers can work out greater commonality among platforms.

And once you get going on the Internet of Things, the edge could literally become every product you sell that can access a wireless connection, whether it's networking gear, cell phone apps, or refrigerators, says Information Age’s Chloe Green. This will require entirely new levels of authentication, management and security, not to mention improved processing and analytics capabilities on the traditional enterprise edge to prevent local resources from becoming overwhelmed. The good news is that with cloud providers pushing edge capabilities as value-added services rather than cost center tools in the data center, the enterprise should get a steady influx of advanced capabilities designed to meet both the threats and the opportunities that disparate data architectures present.

A key challenge will be determining what, among this massive influx of data, is worth keeping, and what can be tossed away. Cisco, in fact, is basing a large part of its future revenue strategy on edge capabilities, both as a means to disperse data loads across disparate infrastructure and to enable the information generated by analytics platforms to be put into action more rapidly. As the company’s Mike Flannagan told IDG recently, organizations become much more responsive to changing business patterns if data no longer has to traverse miles of cable and engage multiple protocols to reach analytics.

So the edge is changing in both form and function as the cloud era unfolds. Because of this it will likely take up more of the enterprise’s time and attention than it does now.

Above all, though, the key challenge will be to embrace the processing and analytics capabilities of the new edge without diminishing its traditional role as the facilitator of security and connectivity.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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