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SDN is redefining the data centre

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To understand how the data centre is changing within the enterprise, it’s important to recognise that its essential functions are not changing. Its role is to house applications that run the businesses. An enterprise will always need a data centre of some kind so that it can run applications and therefore run the business. Many organisations seeking more cost-effective alternatives to an on-premise data centre turn to the cloud as a platform for some of their applications. But the cloud is just a data centre that’s owned by someone else delivering that platform as a service.

One of the things that is really changing data centres is software-defined infrastructure, and specifically software-defined networks (SDN). For example, in a traditional data centre infrastructure, where you can quickly deploy virtualisation, the network has often been the least flexible part of the infrastructure. Although you could provision a virtual machine very quickly, it might take days or weeks, and in some cases months, for the network administrator and operations team to log into every single data centre device and make the requisite changes in the network so that virtual machine could become available to the business.

Now with SDN and automated network configuration, a virtual machine can be ready for service almost as quickly as it is provisioned. Exacerbating this ‘network bottleneck’ problem is the pace of data centre technology modernisation with the advent of containers, flash storage and hyper-converged infrastructures that need ever faster connectivity and dynamic configurations. Although SDN is often thought of as a tool for connecting assets in a public cloud, the same SDN technology works in private clouds and in on-premises data centres. This enables organisations to get more out of their network infrastructure by building a hybrid data centre with optimum locations for different workloads, and to quickly reconfigure the environment to meet business needs.

Gary Middleton quote

In this kind of environment, there are many decisions to make about where best to locate data and applications, whether they are on-premise or in various clouds, or in service provider co-located data centres. It’s highly likely that clients will have many destinations or cloud platforms where they will be running their applications, which makes operating the data centre’s infrastructure that much more challenging.

SDN makes it possible to manage this level of complexity by adding intelligence to the network, so that it can orchestrate and secure applications and data. Many security controls that were handled by appliances attached to the network, such as firewalls, intrusion prevention, encryption and authentication, are now delivered in concert with the network itself. In a highly distributed hybrid data centre infrastructure, it is critical that SDN and cloud-based security controls are consistently applied across the entire infrastructure.

Gary Middleton quote

By turning the data centre network into a fully programmable infrastructure, SDN makes the network more agile and flexible than the people and processes that support it. This presents a new kind of challenge. For example, in a business in which network function is critical, such as banking, automating network configuration and management may break a change-control process designed to protect the bank against process interruptions or regulatory violations. That is why architecting data centre networks requires critical input from many stakeholders.

When architecting a data centre, I always recommend that these things be integral to the process:

  • Include networking teams in any data centre or cloud-planning projects. The network is the platform that connects applications and cloud instances. Not including the networking team in these planning sessions is a recipe for disaster.
  • Discuss business intent and what applications are essential for fulfilling that intent. This includes application location, which has significant cost, performance, security, and compliance implications.
  • Understand your current network architecture and whether it will support the application strategy. Also understand what the future architecture needs to be to support both your application and business strategy.
  • Have SDN consulting engagements to better understand what SDN is and the different approaches to it. There is still a lot of confusion about SDN and what it can do, and technology manufacturers contribute to this by being single-minded with their own approaches and technologies. You need independent consultation that provides a level of education and clarity about how, and even if, SDN will help you.

Data centres are as important as ever to the enterprise, and they are not going away. However they are changing, and so is data centre networking. They are evolving in ways that affect how organisations architect their data centre networks, how they deploy them and how they operate them. This calls for new skill sets and processes for making the business a true stakeholder in its data centre and networking solution.

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