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CIO's should be watching (and preparing) for SDN and Openflow

Jul 27, 2012, by Shelton Waggener
Tags: Advanced Networking, Executive Insights, imported, Layer 2 Services, Network Architecture, Software Defined Networking

Signals of Innovation From a Former Higher Ed CIO

“Wow, have you seen that new [fill in your favorite IT solution here], do you think it’s going to be a success?” CIOs get this question often and as both technologists and business people, it behooves us to keep an eye on the trends that generate these new overnight wonders - though they are rarely overnight successes.  Gaining momentum for quite some time, and showing all the right signals of being one of those meta trends CIOs need to be following is Software Defined Networking (SDN) and OpenFlow  (http://www.openflow.org/).

Technologists have known for years that leaps in innovation occur with surprising regularity – you just have to know what signs to watch out for.   However, even knowing what to look for doesn’t always help if you’re trying to spot a specific company.  These predictable patterns aren’t really about about selecting individual winners or losers (that comes later), but rather understanding the implications of a technology trend and how it will impact providing services to a campus community.    Fortunately for CIO’s within higher education, we don’t have to look far to see things taking shape. In fact we have been witness to the leading edge of many of these trends – being developed right on our own campuses.

What macro trends are we talking about?  Each time an area of information technology is advanced, it is often a result of research that allows a specific component to be disintermediated from the whole, and provided at a lower cost, higher performance, or both.

  • CPU and Memory hard wired together?  Standard SIMM and later DIMM gave us 1000-fold performance at a fraction of the cost.
  • Storage tied to CPU?  Storage Area Networks and Storage Arrays created pools of storage to be shared across systems.
  • Operating system tied to a single CPU?  Virtualization enabled massive multitenant environments that are one of the foundation blocks of the Cloud computing world.
These advances often trace their roots to innovation done at our research universities, only to be standardized and broadly deployed in the commercial world.    Now we are seeing it again – and from one of the key players in the last round of disruption.

VMware’s acquisition this week of Nicira – a startup founded by Stanford and Berkeley from research on SDN, is poised to change the data center again. Nicira is one of a few commercial startups that recognized the current limitations and lockdown of having the control plane and hardware tied together in a network switch.  If you’re virtualizing your servers and storage, you should be able to virtualize your network so provisioning, performance monitoring, dynamic expansion and deprovisioning can all be linked together via software management tools.

The change will be profound – not just in the layout of your local data center, but in how you think about the data center itself. Just as your organization had to become more nimble when you started to manage technology components separately like storage, CPU and O/S, in order to combine these into unified solutions, you will unlock the same level of benefit with lower costs and great flexibility once network optimization is no longer tightly coupled to a hardware provider.  The network will become much simpler to align with application and system needs, just as reconfigurable and flexible as our virtual compute/storage/visualization has become. Datacenters will no longer be single physical locations but rather sets of services that blend internal and external resources. SDN will enable that level of flexibility and unleash another round of innovation in the networking and cloud arena.

Your organization will need to be prepared (and the staff trained and encouraged) to take advantage of these trends, regardless of the specific commercial offerings you adopt.  Just as you needed to encourage your storage staff to look at new storage models, and your server teams to consider the impact of virtualization and cloud, the same opportunities are coming to your networking team.

So how are you positioning your campus for this next shift in technology?  Within our community there has been excitement about the possibilities of OpenFlow for some time, with our member institutions leading the way in enabling new innovations built on SDN and OpenFlow.  Still, if you haven’t been watching this trend, last week’s commercial acquisition of the 100 employee, three year old startup, Nicira, for $1.25b (yes that’s a B – as in Billion) should indicate the next big impact on the data center is on the horizon.

Exciting times indeed.