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The seven benefits of software-defined networking

Software-defined networking can help modernize a company's IT infrastructure and keep pace with new technologies. Here are some of the benefits of SDN technology.

Software-defined networking is poised to have a major impact on enterprises. SDN technology can create more efficient, centralized networking management, reduce operating costs, and enable new technologies in your enterprise.

With software-defined networking (SDN), the network can direct traffic without relying on the hardware to make the decision. This capability has become critical to readying companies for new technologies such as cloud -based applications, the Internet of Things (IoT) devices, big data applications and so forth.

Seven benefits of software-defined networking

SDN enables administrators to provision networks quickly and without manual configuration —with less impact on business activities . By decoupling hardware from software, software becomes the decision maker, shepherding network packets where they need to go. With intelligence residing in the software layer, network administrators have greater visibility and control over the network. Ultimately, technology agility translates into the possibility for new business capabilities and innovation.

SDN technology starts to take hold

While SDN is still viewed as a leading-edge technology, it’s starting to take hold. As early as 2015, network virtualization and SDN were among the top priorities for IT decision makers, according to a TechTarget survey. Approximately 29% of respondents cited network virtualization as a key initiative for the next 12 months. And in 2016, 451 Research found that 37% of enterprises had increased spending on software-defined networking in 2016, and 67% increased spending on software-defined infrastructure.

SDN is also a key area of focus, because companies want greater visibility into the network, greater automation of network management, and more simplicity as they manage infrastructure, according to one networking research survey.

What’s driving investments in infrastructure and software-defined networking? Trends like digital transformation and IT modernization are major factors in SDN adoption. For example, 80% of 500-plus respondents to Altimeter’s “2016 State of Digital Transformation” say that modernizing IT infrastructure is their top digital transformation project.

According to experts, software-defined networking is not without challenge, though. And while SDN can reduce complexity by giving visibility into the network, it also creates additional complexity.

"Virtualization reduced provisioning times [for IT infrastructure] from months to hours," said Greg Stover, a software and solutions manager executive at Vertiv (a data center infrastructure provider), at the Data Center World conference in April. But at the same time, Stover noted, introduced that flexibility and agility brought new problems. "You have more options but also more complexity."

The benefits of software-defined networking

SDN is a journey, and it will take time to get there. Companies need a transition period to introduce or extend network virtualization and automation into data center infrastructure. They may need to nurture in-house skill sets and tune operations in other ways to ready themselves for SDN and the digital transformation that underlies it. That education starts by putting the benefits of SDN in context:

  1. Centralized network provisioning. Because it abstracts the control and data planes, SDN can load-balance and distribute traffic more efficiently to prevent chokepoints, which can improve application performance.
  2. Comprehensive infrastructure management. Provisioning infrastructure (storage, servers and networks) with a central console for management.
  3. Augmented automation. Automation helps create a more predictable, consistent environment and promotes scalability to accommodate peaks and valleys in traffic load.
  4. Enhanced security. While virtualization has made management more complex, having a centralized network controller can bring the reins of control back to IT professionals’ hands and create a central point of control to distribute security and policy information consistently throughout the enterprise.
  5. Reduced operating costs. Centralized management, operational efficiency and better hardware use all enable reduced costs.
  6. Reduced hardware management and costs. You can extend the life of existing hardware because you have shifted the decision making to the SDN controller.
  7. Cloud-ready infrastructure. As companies move to the cloud, their infrastructure needs to be virtualized and centrally managed in order for IT professionals to build new services on top of the infrastructure. With a more flexible and scalable IT infrastructure, companies can develop and deploy new applications and services in days rather than weeks or months.

At the same time, as noted, virtualization and centralized management can introduce some new challenges. The onus is on SDN technology providers to keep an eye on the complexity that comes with automation and programmability of the network. Automation can be the foe of simplicity, so SDN technology has to strike the balance between the two.

Additional resources

Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz

Managing Editor, Cisco.com