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The Brave New “Flat” World of Software-Defined Networks (SDN)

Posted by Shmuel Kliger on Apr 24, 2014 4:02:11 PM
Shmuel Kliger
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This article originally appeared in the Data Center Journal.

In the international bestseller The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, author Thomas Friedman states that the world is now a level playing field for commerce, where all competitors have an equal opportunity regardless of their physical location, history or economic position. In his tome, Friedman outlines 10 “flatteners” that have evened the global playing field—and every single one is a technological advancement except for the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Those flatteners—including Netscape, workflow software, mobile/wireless and outsourcing—have removed all boundaries so that no single nation or continent will ever have rigid control over the global economy or its resources ever again.

A similar revolution is taking place in the data center with the advent of the software-defined network (SDN), which is removing constraints and creating a flat IT environment. Before virtualization arrived on the scene, IT managers had control over everything in their silos—storage, networks and computing—as well as the ability to control application performance in dedicated IT stacks. But all that changed when virtualization forced IT teams to relinquish control and break down the physical and functional boundaries. “What do we do now?” ask many perplexed IT managers who actually want to seize back at least a small portion of that original control, if only to feel safe and secure. Some try to take it back with clustering, creating a small domain of control. But as their organizations embrace the more efficient SDN model, these IT managers must change and fully relinquish control. They are now explorers and no longer the gatekeepers.

And why not embrace the role of the explorer? SDN opens to IT teams a whole new world without boundaries, letting them become even more creative and forward-thinking with how they use technology on behalf of their employers. In his book, Friedman warns that companies, individuals and countries that do not embrace the new flat world will become extinct like the dinosaurs of long ago, literally as well as figuratively. The same will happen to IT professionals who do not embrace SDN.

A key challenge for IT professionals operating a boundless environment is managing it. Provisioning, onboarding, on-going operations management and planning activities must conform to the flat environment. Determining what workload to run where and when and configuring resources to maximize the ROI from the boundless compute capacity becomes the most critical and very complex ongoing challenge. In the new “flat” world this can’t be done in the “old” labor-intensive way where IT operators are heavily involved in every step. This is where software can help and serve as a compass for IT explorers in an environment without borders and with unlimited freedom. This freedom, though, carries great responsibility. And yet it’s another place where software can further enable the IT explorers to stake new ground.

SDN enables a new approach to managing flat IT environments, much like how servers were an enabler for tremendous benefits in IT infrastructure: their introduction “broke” a lot of things. So, it was a case of take a giant leap forward and a few steps back. That type of ebb and flow with progress is typical and understood when significant paradigm shifts take place in IT environments. With SDN, there will be a giant leap forward again, but it will require that IT teams adapt to the “new normal” and make adjustments. Letting software make decisions means that they will have to give up some control, but it will likely allow them to make gains in other areas—areas that have yet to materialize. This is a case where the ability to take a leap of faith comes in handy.

For these new flat-world explorers, software can serve as a valuable compass, as it will likely remove the need for the fine-grained control required today. Software-driven control up-levels management while enabling activity focus at a macro level. This is very similar to how automation has helped people in their everyday lives—for example, the advent of the washing machine ameliorated the low-level tasks associated with keeping clothes clean, but we still have to do the laundry. Only now, it takes much less time and manual work while getting the clothes even cleaner than before.

How can we best leverage software to manage flat environments? As explorers, we need to seize the opportunities the new “flat” world is opening. Given that the environments we control are no longer segmented by configuration constraints, we should ask ourselves how we can take advantage of it:

  • How segmented is the environment we control?
  • What drives the current segmentation in the environment?
    • Technology constraints?
    • Business policies?
    • Organization constraints?
    • Compliance constraints?
    • How agile and mobile are the applications we control? Are they cloud ready?
    • What application dependencies exist in the environment that may constrain their agility and mobility?

Once you answer those questions, you should look for software-driven control that can take advantage of the SDN enablers and let you do the following:

  • Define the desired state of your environment
  • Drive your environment to the desired state
  • Control your environment in the desired state

In doing so, you seamlessly evolve from a gatekeeper to an explorer. Fortunately, there so many great benefits for those brave enough to complete the voyage. Explorers have a broader view of the overall environment, business goals and ultimate results; they use a long lens as opposed to a microscope or magnifying glass.

The broader view provides better perspective on the whole, and it’s more strategic to mapping where your organization can go and what you can achieve. Gatekeepers will always be stymied without the view of where their silo fits into the larger cloud-expanded world. Lastly, the old adage “fortune favors the brave” holds true: explorers will have better opportunities for career growth and to achieve greater rewards from their organizations as a result of taking a risk and letting go of control.

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