Better Networking Through the API

Software architectures are much easier to manage and manipulate than hardware. So it stands to reason that the software defined network (SDN) will prove to be orders of magnitude more flexible and scalable than today’s hardware-based infrastructure.

But while many tech watchers laud the idea of the programmable network, myself included, it bears noting that it still requires a fair amount of legwork to first build an abstract network and then perfect it to the point that simple code can produce the desired network environment for one set of applications without fouling things up for others.

This is where the art of API management comes in. ENP’s own Julie Knudson recently posted a solid examination of the challenges and opportunities that confront the enterprise as it seeks to deploy SDN. The market for API management tools is already approaching the $3 billion mark, according to Forrester, even though most organizations have barely begun to experience all of the ramifications of a coordinated, programmable network. Issues like user definition, resource access, process coordination and countless others will have to be hashed out before the abstract network can begin to function in a coordinated manner.

Some organizations are farther along on the journey than others, according to Mike Vizard writing for Channel Insider (Mike is also a contributor to ENP’s sister publications IT Business Edge, eWeek, and others). While most firms are looking to SDN as a means to manage complex networks at scale, others are utilizing REST APIs to expose server, storage and network resources to developers and even applications themselves. This effectively creates a headless services environment, since it bypasses the typical dedicated user interface. The challenge will be maintaining a cohesive API architecture as data environments start to crawl across the cloud, where they could encounter a variety of proprietary networking operating systems, like JunOS, or the emerging Linux-based distributions that are taking shape.

In fact, one of the leading open communities, the Open Networking Foundation, is working aggressively to define the interface for key traffic flows, which in the coming year will focus largely on the northbound interface (NBI). The group is readying a number of conceptual proofs and technology trials that will allow developers to test NBI code against prevailing open APIs while at the same time ensuring its compatibility with the more mature southbound interface (SBI). This will provide a robust foundation for leading open network solutions like OpenFlow, the Open Network Operating System, and Open Daylight to support higher-order networking applications like real-time media for both SDN and NFV architectures.

One sign of the growing importance of Dev/Ops and API management is the degree to which even large networking platform vendors are cozying up to the developer community. Huawei is the latest to host its own developer conference, where executive director Ryan Ding highlighted not only the company’s prowess in the cloud, Big Data, IoT and SDN, but then rolled out plans for the eSDK development platform featuring remote labs, corporate funding of development efforts, dedicated certification programs and even marketing support. The program is built around the “LEADS” concept, which stands for Lab as a Service, End-to-end development resources, Agile processes, Dedicated on-line support and a Social engagement platform known as the Developer Zone.

If all goes according to plan, the enterprise will no longer actively manage its network infrastructure directly, but guide its utilization through network APIs. This is a pretty dramatic shift from what we have now, and will require new tools and new skillsets in order to be successful.

Right now, the focus is on getting the technology in place. Before the enterprise gets too dependent on SDN, it might want to take a moment to consider how this new environment will operate, and who will be responsible for what in order to provide the advanced functionality that users are expecting.

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