Some of you may or may not have heard of the term Software Defined Networking (SDN), regardless for me it is Cloud for the Network. Many may disagree with this description but I believe it is apt and best describes what SDN offers and where there could be problems.

Before I continue let’s consider a simple analogy as means of explanation. SDN is like electricity; more accurately how it is supplied and distributed.

We all buy and use electricity. We connect our appliances, TVs, the laptop I am writing on right now, through standardised wall sockets. These sockets are supplied current through a fuse box which is wired to supply outside which is in turn wired to the national grid. If we want to change energy suppliers we can do so simply by migrating our billing information to a new provider. It all sounds easy and convenient.

Now imagine those wall sockets were different. What if everywhere you went the sockets varied depending on your location. Imagine each area (not country but hotel down the road, office and airports) had its own proprietary sockets with no agreed open standards. You wouldn’t be able to charge your laptop simply by plugging it in. To make it worse it might not even be case of having the right adapter. The voltage output could vary and even the access could be regulated, with differing priorities depending on the kind of energy request.

This is what is happening everyday in data centres all over the world. And why? Simply, all SDNs are not created equal. If software is defining the network, and it is, then it is possible to throttle the connection, use differing access protocols and define traffic inequitably. Proprietary hardware and patents that do not allow for open interconnection or free movement of a data are commonplace in today’s software defined network.

More worrying for businesses accessing data centre services the use of these proprietary connections make it very difficult to change providers. Where we can change energy suppliers quickly and easily (and readily compare provision and price) businesses cannot.

Data centre customers should not have to rework their routing, switching, firewall protection and addressing systems to just to change providers. The affect of current SDN practice is that businesses are being locked in to their current providers. Some might say, held to ransom. If the continuity of your business services are such that you cannot move providers without incurring significant migration fees then your data is locked in.

Should a customer’s choice be limited to a single proprietary vendor or should it be open and transparent? You can guess my position. An interconnected, open system allowing both the network provider and customer easy access via a software-defined system is what the cloud marketplace needs. This is why we are seeing more MSPs and vendors going with open standards for the service provision.

Industry associations such as the CEF (Carrier Ethernet Forum) are a useful resource for understanding these issues. Take a look but don’t stop there. To promote a meaningful change lies with customer pressure. It should be easy, a fundamental right, for a business to be able to switch providers.

Ask your hardware or switching vendor what their adherence to open networking standards and systems are. And ask your data centre provider about choice. Where are your choices away from proprietary, and what is the lock-in based on the network hardware deployed?

SDN is a technology we would recommend if implemented fairly. OpenContrail is another good resource and is uses open source software that is backed by Juniper Networks, a respected name in the networking industry.

If you’re running an OpenStack or CloudStack environment there are options available including Neutron with CloudStack supporting Big Switch. Additionally big vendors such as IBM have created partner eco-systems. Another good SDN resource can be found on the IBM website.

My view is that SDN will continue to be integrated into cloud platforms and control panels. But unless software defined networking technologies move away from being proprietary and cumbersome, advancement will be stalled. In the long term an open source SDN could liberate proprietary systems and allow for simpler customer migration. One day it could be as easy as switching electricity providers.

The key question to ask your data centre provider, whether you’re an end-user or MSP, is how can you leave, back out and exit your current network deployment? If the answer is prefaced with deep intake of breath or a big sum then the answer is no. You are locked in to your data centre.

The cloud should be about freedom of choice and the ability to differentiate using both open and closed systems through seamless interconnectivity. Creating systems where information can be secured and easily accessed is a goal for any organisation looking to enjoy the benefits of the cloud. SDNs need to do more, be more open, to help realise this goal.

Feel free to agree or disagree with this article, all comments and opinions are welcome.

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