Virtual Networking: Just the Beginning of a Broader Transformation

Software defined networking (SDN) was a seminal development in enterprise networking, but it is in fact only a piece of the overall transition to full virtualization. While it undoubtedly helped to streamline data center architectures and simplify the management burden, the true ramifications of these changes are likely to be felt far beyond the firewall.

According to Analytical Research Cognizance, the market for SDN, network functions virtualization (NFV) and network virtualization in general is on pace to top $22 billion over the next decade, delivering compound annual growth of 45 percent. The reasons are clear: explosive demand for bandwidth coupled with the highly flexible workflows of mobile and IoT traffic, both of which must be met without blowing capex and opex out of the water. Meanwhile, the technology is allowing carriers and network service providers to begin offering data center capabilities remotely for use cases ranging from intelligent customer devices, wide area connectivity and virtualized IP Multimedia Subsystems (vIMS) and Evolved Packet Core (vEPC) architectures.

Traditionally, SDN was viewed primarily as a data center solution while NFV resided on carrier networks. But as these two sectors converge, the technologies are starting to cross over. Savvius’ Nadeem Zahid notes that operational efficiency is now a key concern in the data center as it attempts to serve a wide variety of users and applications. That means SDN’s ability to separate the networking control and data planes can be augmented by NFV’s ability to create multiple virtual networks atop commoditized hardware. The key challenge, however, is visibility, particularly when backhauling east-west traffic onto standard north-south networks.

And while hardware may no longer play a crucial role in managing virtual networks, it nonetheless factors into overall performance and optimization. Mellanox recently introduced a new Hyper-scalable Enterprise Framework that improves the relationship between industry standard hardware and open source networking software. The package provides support for converged networking on Ethernet storage fabrics, as well as virtual network acceleration for software-defined everything (SDx) architectures. At the same time, it streamlines the integration of leading cloud software solutions, such as OpenStack, vSphere and Azure, as well as storage platforms like Ceph and Gluster.

The need to drive virtual networking beyond the data center and even beyond the cloud all the way to the IoT edge is clear given the rapidly evolving digital universe. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger pointed out at Dell Technologies World last week that the only way the enterprise can remain relevant going forward is to embrace these distributed architectures, and the only way to do that effectively is to virtualize both local and wide area networks. This is the main reason the company purchased WAN provider VeloCloud late last year and is now putting its efforts into the NSX Virtual Cloud Network.

It should also be noted that virtual networking is about more than just connectivity – it feeds into the transformation of the full IT stack into a software-defined data center (SDDC). Without networking, virtualized server and storage resources can only support modern workloads in a limited fashion, basically lowering the cost and increasing the scale and flexibility of their particular hardware infrastructure. Add networking to that virtual layer, however, and you have the ability to abstract entire digital environments, manipulate them in any way necessary and host them on resources around the world. And this is before we even start to contemplate the further advantages of automated, autonomous, intelligent infrastructure.

This will take a while to unfold, of course, but right now the focus should be on severing the fixed links between hardware and higher-level data architectures. Virtual networking is the final step in this process, but it’s only the beginning of what will be a pretty remarkable transformation.

Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering enterprise IT, telecommunications and other high-tech industries.

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