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Software Defined Everything: Making the most of the modern network

01 Oct 2021
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Andy Linham

Strategy Manager for Fixed Connectivity, Vodafone Business

One of the things I love most about my job is the pace at which it moves. There’s always change happening in the communications industry, whether that’s from a technology side or a business angle. If these changes are seismic enough, we tend to categorise them as trends and that’s when things start to get really interesting…

The largest trend of the current decade has been the rise of software-driven platforms.

Hardware vs software

We refer to traditional network infrastructure as ‘monolithic’. The name comes from the fact that each device is self-contained.

For example, a router was the one box that connected your site to the network and a firewall was the box that protected your site from threats. They each had an operating system that was written in software, but the performance of their roles was always routed in the capabilities of the hardware.

In a monolithic architecture, most of the heavy lifting is done in hardware, and vendors were in a race to develop faster, more powerful processors to keep up with the increases in traffic.

Neilsen’s law states that Internet traffic for high end users increases by half each year so the vendors need to move fast just to stand still. The answer to this accelerated growth was abstraction, or more simply, to separate the functions of the software from the hardware where it was possible.

We will always need hardware appliances to drive the network. The pulses of light that carry data down a fibre-optic cable need something at the other end to convert them back into electrical information. But, if we can make the job of the hardware as simple as possible, it’s much easier to scale it to cope with higher bandwidths.

The new network

So, this means we need to do the complex tasks, such as security and routing, in software. This leads us into the age of the Software Defined Network. Let’s look at the four key areas where these software-driven techniques either have, or will, replace their monolithic predecessors:

1. Software Defined Wide Area Network

Probably the best known of these areas is SD-WAN. It’s been in widespread use for over five years now and has become the de facto networking technology that customers are looking for.

The premise of SD-WAN is exactly as we’ve described - that we run the complex routing and security functions in software. There are lots of benefits to doing this and one of the biggest ones is the simple way we can make changes. As it’s just a software application, we can patch it, upgrade it, replace it, or restart it all remotely.

We also manage it centrally so there’s no need for engineer visits to add in new functions. This saves time and effort and minimises any down time attributed to maintaining the network.

The feature velocity is much better with SD-WAN too because most of the new bells and whistles aren’t linked to the underlying hardware platform, so we can make use of them straight away.

SD-WAN’s rise to prominence can be linked with the increasing complexity of the network. We are now seeing high concentrations of remote workers, coupled with oscillating bandwidth demands and a mix of Internet and private connectivity. These contribute to the complexity and are accelerating the move to programmable network services.

The levels of automation we can now achieve in the WAN aren’t possible with the monolithic architecture we have used in the past.

2. Software Defined Local Area Network

SD-LAN has lagged behind SD-WAN in many ways, but the adoption is really starting to take off now. The easiest way to think of SD-LAN is applying all the benefits of SD-WAN (e.g. central control, complex functions in software, high feature velocity, etc.) to the infrastructure you use to connect within a site.

The SD-LAN market was launched by Cisco Meraki in 2009 when they released their cloud management platform for the wired and wireless LAN kit. It offered organisations a completely new way of running their LAN and for the first time, the cloud was central to the operational effectiveness.   Fast forward 12 years and their architectural model has had a remarkable influence on the industry.

3. Software Defined Branch

SD-WAN + SD-LAN = SD-Branch. It combines a single management interface for the LAN and the WAN, meaning all that software defined goodness becomes even simpler. You have one set of common policies to govern the end-to-end journey of your users, all the way from the Wi-Fi access point they’re connecting to right up to the cloud platform they’re running their application in.

As SD-Branch is a combination of two software-driven applications, all the benefits we’ve mentioned still apply. The benefits are amplified though as they span multiple areas of an organisation’s connectivity. We can now free up the engineers to spend more time delivering value-add services rather than repeating the same tasks day after day.

Some definitions of SD-Branch also make reference to the inclusion of network security. These are usually delivered as component parts of either the LAN or WAN (or both).

4. Software Defined Cloud Interconnect (SDCI)

SDCI is the most recent entry into the pantheon of Software Defined Everything. It is directly linked to the success of cloud-delivered applications. Just about every organisation has moved some or all of their applications into the cloud. This move means that the connectivity to the cloud is a really important part of the enterprise network today.

There are a few options for this connectivity – you can use the Internet and go straight to the public front door, you can use private MPLS services and get a guarantee of performance, or you can go through a third party broker and connect to multiple clouds.

SDCI offers a combination of all three of these, with the ability to use whichever access method you have available. It then uses modern software techniques to automate and orchestrate the links between your network and the cloud provider.

This essentially brings the same level of flexibility and agility to the network that customers are used to receiving from their cloud providers.

So, those are the key components of our new software defined industry.  The good news is that we are perfectly placed to help your company navigate these new waters.

Learn how our cloud connectivity capabilities can support you and your business.

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