Riverbed: SDN vs. OpenFlow vs. NFV vs. network programmability, etc.

The buzzword may be important on its own, but the danger comes when its use as shorthand for the broader trend causes confusion.

Jan 24 2014. Source: riverbed.com

Adistec. Riverbed Value Add Distributor for Latin America.

Also, buzzwords often don’t explain the motivations behind the trend. A great example is the use of “VDI” as a catch-all for the broader trend towards desktop and application virtualization, which has been motivated by desktop management headaches and security concerns. If you didn’t get all that from “VDI”, you’re not alone.

In this post, I’m going to explore a universe of terms for network programmability and automation. Software-defined networking, or SDN, has emerged as that catch-all buzzword (surprise! Another three-letter acronym), but there’s a lot more to this trend. Before we dive into the vocabulary list of related terms, let’s review what is motivating the need for network programmability and SDN:

-Eliminating box-by-box configuration

-Gaining end-to-end traffic control

-Managing the network by policy, programmatically

-Accelerating time to market with new services

-Accelerating M&A integration

-Adopting cloud services – now you can have a logical network that extends into your cloud provider.

OpenFlow: According to Wikipedia, OpenFlow is “a communications protocol that gives access to the forwarding plane of a network switch or router over the network.” If it sounds boring and geeky (to a layperson), it’s because in the big picture, it kind of is. It’s pretty specific and doesn’t - on it’s own - solve the bigger headaches of network management. Over time, layer 2-3 routers and switches will probably support OpenFlow (or perhaps some other protocol that wins the standardization war), and we’ll all take for granted that OpenFlow and SDN have enabled network virtualization..

Software-defined networking (SDN): SDN decouples a virtual network topology from the physical network, so that upper-layer virtual services can operate as they would in a physical network. When this decoupling happens, the control plane needs a way to communicate with the forwarding plane (physical network), which is where protocols like OpenFlow come into play. Riley argues that the virtualized network is the more interesting destination, and SDN is just the means of getting there. That’s like comparing SDN to the hypervisors used in server virtualization – over the last ten years we spend less time talking about the hypervisors and more about what we can do with our virtualized machines. Whether “SDN” goes the way of “hypervisor” will have to play out over time.

Network function virtualization (NFV): The “NFV” term emerged from the network service provider industry – this is important because they are operating multi-tenant networks at a massive scale (motivation). Essentially, NFV is about all those network services that have been delivered as hardware appliances – firewalls, load-balancers and application delivery controllers, WAN optimization, etc. – become virtualized, software-based services running on standard hardware. To illustrate how mature this concept is, note that all of Riverbed’s network function products are available as virtual appliances.

Just as with virtualizing servers, virtualizing network functions offers a host of efficiency benefits. But what’s implied in many NFV discussions – including this one by Ciena’s Bo Gowan (@bogowan) – is that these virtualized network functions (yes, “VNF”) will also take advantage of programmability features to enable things like service-chain automation. The automation is what is really game-changing for a lot of enterprises and service providers – NFV and programmability are the critical means of achieving it.

Twonky Video makes it possible to browse video content online or on your network from your phone or tablet, and beam it to any DLNA- or AirPlay-compatible device. With IP Camera Viewer, on the other hand, users can view and manage any IP camera connected to an EA series router, from a mobile device. Cisco says this is just the beginning and that there will be hundreds of mobile apps that take advantage of the Cisco Connect Cloud platform, making home networking not just more convenient to use but also more fun and offering features that many people may not have imagined possible before.

Service-chain automation: The concept of “service-chain automation” actually comes from manufacturing. Businesses have been working on making factories more efficient for generations, but now that’s moving to the network. Often building upon network function virtualization (NFV), service-chain automation is about using policies to define the creation, configuration, and execution of network services. This ultimately supports dynamic scaling of those network services.

While OpenFlow and SDN are means to improve network management, automation is an outcome that IT organizations are trying to achieve. In fact, according to a recent survey by Forrester Consulting, 85% consider the ability to customize automation to their needs an important or very important feature of network management and automation vendors. The Stingray Services Controller is an example of the logic required for service-chain automation. It goes beyond the virtual appliance form-factor for ADCs to enable rapid provisioning of right-sized instances of ADCs.

Network programmability: This is the ability to manage and operate a network and network functions by software, often through application programming interfaces (APIs). It’s necessary for service-chain automation, but it provides the flexibility to meet many other forms of automation, customization, and integration. While SDN enables programmability of the network topology, network operations involve more than that. A holistic approach to network programmability will need to incorporate performance, security, and visibility to business needs.

Adistec. Riverbed Value Add Distributor for Latin America.

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