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Software-defined networks - The next networking trend

Buzz moving away from 'network fabric' to the software-controlled world

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The Interop show in Las Vegas is always a good bellwether for enterprise technology trends, and perhaps the most striking thing about the recent show was how little the term "network fabric" came up.

As Jon Oltsik, a principal analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group, said: "Everyone was talking about data centre fabrics last year - TRILL, SPB, QFabric, FabricPath, etc. This year however, hardly a word was spoken."

The buzz instead was about software-defined networks, decoupling the network control plane from the data plane and using the OpenFlow protocol to give servers, which inherit network control, access to devices such as switches and routers.

Driving the interest? While virtualisation has made it possible to create VMs in minutes, the network changes required can take days because they involve multiple people and multiple tools to update port groups, change virtual router settings, update firewalls, take care of management tools, etc. Offloading that control to servers will simplify and speed the process, making it possible for changes to be propagated across multiple tiers of infrastructure in one fell swoop.

It is still early days, and attendees at the show flocked to educational sessions on SDN and OpenFlow looking to learn more. This isn't to say the network fabric discussion is over; it has just been eclipsed.

One of the other overarching themes at the show, as you would expect, was cloud computing. In fact, SDN and cloud are all part and parcel of the same movement toward software-controlled everything. Many Interop speakers, in fact, were using the term "software-defined data centre" as a description of an emerging future state, presumably ultra elastic environments that can morph to meet shifting demands.

He may not be there quite yet, but Zynga CTO of Infrastructure Allan Leinwand used his keynote address to describe his amazingly flexible cloud environment.

Zynga, the company that produces "FarmVille" and other popular online games, has experienced tremendous growth, at one point scaling servers 100:1 year over year. It couldn't keep up with that in the early days so turned to a cloud supplier mid-2009. But by the beginning of 2011 the company realised it wanted to own the core and just rent capacity to accommodate the spikes, so it set out to build a private cloud.

Six months after a proof of concept, Zynga's zCloud was in full production, and by the end of the year it was supporting 80% of the company's compute load. The most fascinating nugget: Zynga was able to support on one highly tuned zCloud server the loads from three public cloud servers. Today Zynga operates what Leinwand says is the largest hybrid cloud in the world.

All the virtual pieces are aligning nicely, and it isn't unreasonable to expect that software-defined data centres will be within reach by the end of the decade.


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