Transforming Networks: From Virtualization to Cloudification

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Networking professionals have absorbed and adopted wave after wave of new technologies over the last few years — most recently software-defined networking and its closely related cousin network virtualization. But there’s no time to rest up because network cloudification is set to explode in popularity. 

Software-defined networking involves the separation of the control and data plane so that routers become commodity hardware with the smarts placed in software running separately. Network virtualization involves combining physical networks into a single logical LAN, or the reverse: splitting a physical LAN into a number of virtual LANs. (Network virtualization also exists within virtualization hosts, allowing applications running on different guests on the host machine to exchange data.)

Cloudification takes this abstracted approach to networking a stage further, by taking network virtualization technologies and enhancing them so that they can leverage the power of cloud platforms and technologies — particularly container technology including orchestration. 

What’s the driver for cloudification? Two things: 5G networking and edge computing. 

Moving Toward Edge Clouds

Spending on 5G networking by telcos and enterprises is forecast to balloon this year, jumping almost 90% to $4.1 billion, according to IBM. Much of this is to enable machine-to-machine communications, often as part of vast new IoT networks. 5G has also got an important part to play in the building of new ultra-reliable, low-latency network services. 

Many of these low-latency network services are provided at network edges, used by applications, servers, storage devices and other infrastructure placed near to end users or endpoints. Edge computing is important because it improves network transport latency, as well as providing benefits such as localization of data for privacy or security reasons. 

The benefits of cloud computing are well known — hence the success of giant public clouds such as AWS and Microsoft’s Azure. So, the obvious next step for network virtualization, to enable it to accommodate the billions of new nodes that 5G will bring, is to move the network to edge clouds. That way virtualized network functions are brought as close as possible to end users.

Container Technology

At this point it might be sensible to think about virtualization and another of its closely related cousins, container technology. Traditional networking hardware was like a dedicated server, while network virtualization is analogous to a number of virtual machines, each with their own OS, running on top of a hypervisor on a host server. 

Containers are smaller and more nimble, consisting of their own application and as much operating system as they need, sharing the container host’s operating system with other containers on the host. The result is a container app, or a cloud-based microservice, which can easily be moved around and controlled using an orchestration tool such as the open source Kubernetes platform.

It’s worth noting that just as existing legacy software from legacy networking appliances can be virtualized, it can also be containerized. But most people take cloudification to be something more: the development of new code that has specifically been written or rewritten to run in the cloud, in a lightweight micro service container. 

So cloudification usually (but doesn’t have to) involve the containerization of networking microservices, and providing them from open public clouds, or indeed private corporate clouds as well. That way these abstracted networking microservices can be set up and deployed as needed across any cloud environment.

Managing Cloudified Networks

One of the many beauties of this approach is that cloudified network services can be managed extremely efficiently, through orchestration platforms like Kubernetes, “automagically”.  That means using a high degree of automation and, increasingly, by harnessing the power for artificial intelligence (AI) systems for service provisioning. 

For networking professionals working both at cloud service providers and in enterprise data centers or IT departments, there’s no doubt that cloudification will soon be on the radar if it isn’t already. And it will also present a number of distinct challenges because:

  • Network cloudification is a huge, transformational job, and one that most people have never embarked on before

  • For many networking professionals, this will be the first time they get involved in a project which is so deeply entrenched with analytics and AI

  • As always, there is likely to be considerable cultural resistance. At the very least, the question that needs to be resolved first is whether this is actually an IT job or a networking job. 

  • There will likely be a skills gap because as well as core networking skills, cloudification requires multiple new sets of software skills

Cloudification may seem like a daunting prospect, or even a tall order, for network architects just getting to grips with SD-WAN technologies. But technology never stops evolving. So for most networking professionals, when it comes to cloudification, there seems little choice but to jump right in. 

Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist specializing in enterprise networking, security, storage, and virtualization. He has worked for international publications including The Financial Times, BBC, and The Economist, and is now based near Oxford, U.K. When not writing about technology Paul can usually be found playing or restoring pinball machines.

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