SDN: Unshackling the Network Application Environment

What will be the killer app for SDN, and does there have to be only one?

By Arthur Cole | Posted Oct 3, 2014
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The software defined network (SDN) is intended to provide greater coordination between underlying network infrastructure and the configuration and architectural needs of business applications. Conceivably, this could result in apps like CRM and BI configuring their own network pathways and security/governance parameters, leaving broader policy and deployment issues to network administrators.

One of the ways SDN accomplishes this feat is by making it easier to build and deploy network applications. As long as these applications can operate comfortably within a cohesive networking environment, enterprises should be able to build all kinds of functionality into their newly abstracted data infrastructure.

Enter HP’s new SDN App Store. Following nearly a year of development, the company formally took the wraps off its creation this week. The idea is to build the same kind of third-party development ecosystem that Apple fosters within its mobile portfolio, except instead of sharing pictures and crushing candy, users are deploying security protocols or optimizing network performance. So far, the store has garnered contributions from hardware vendors like F5 and KEMP, plus software tools from Guardicore and eCode, not to mention HP’s own homegrown apps like Network Protector and Network Optimizer.

Presumably, all applications acquired through HP will be compatible with HP SDN equipment and the Eucalyptus format, and by extension OpenFlow and OpenStack environments. However, with software based infrastructure potentially spreading across the globe, there is no guarantee that compatibility can be maintained everywhere, so some form of interoperability testing will be needed. CNLabs recently introduced its SDN Application Interoperability Program, designed to provide app vendors with predeployment validation across multi-vendor and multi-protocol controller and network framework platforms. The goal is not only to verify interoperability, but to establish some measure of application conformity and predictability across dynamic network environments as well.

With any new data environment, of course, talk of the "killer app" is inevitable. To some, however, SDN’s killer app won’t be on the data side of the house, but the voice and communications side. For network consultant Tom Hollingsworth, Microsoft’s Lync application fits the bill nicely, providing voice communications, instant messaging and other services without the configuration pain points that accompany most other soft clients. An SDN can be easily programmed to offer dynamic QoS policies to Lync traffic, with various levels of service for, say, video and audio communications guaranteed through SDN’s built-in visibility. Lync is also network-agnostic and operates on the premise that adequate bandwidth will always be available, one of the hallmarks of SDN.

SDN is such an all-encompassing technology that it is quite likely there will be no single killer app, says Digital Networking’s Thomas Deitrich. The mobile industry has had several killers over the years, but it is safe to say that most smartphone users today regularly employ a variety of applications. In fact, any one of the advantages that SDN brings to legacy networks can be categorized as a killer app, including dynamic traffic and router configuration, network management and optimization, and even capex reduction. With a programmable network architecture at your disposal, the killer app can be whatever your development team can dream up.

One thing is clear: SDN is going to provide a robust application environment for some time to come. For an industry that has been working steadily toward virtual server and storage infrastructure for nearly a decade, unshackling the network from its hardware-driven confines will finally allow network admins to join the party as well.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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