Software-defined networking (SDN) has gained a great deal of interest among IT leaders in recent months. They see its potential to reduce network infrastructure costs while improving agility by creating a network that adapts -- in real time -- to changing application and user needs. SDN can also leverage the power of automation to reduce change time and operating costs.
SDN benefits the overall network by enabling automated, real-time configuring of network devices, such as switches, routers and optimizers. In the SDN world, network devices are programmed by an SDN controller, which also talks to applications to receive real-time instructions, requests and policy information.
The current dominant network engineering model consists of predefined and static queues, access policy lists, and virtual private networks (VPNs). And yet SDN benefits the network by adjusting parameters, such as quality of service (QoS), bandwidth reservation and security in real time.
Clearly, SDN has tremendous potential to deliver a network that is more adaptable to common unified communications (UC) challenges, such as multiple simultaneous video conferences, data-hungry collaboration applications, BYOD competing for Wi-Fi bandwidth, and voice traffic bursts caused by business events.
In a statically configured QoS and security model, the network is unable to make policy-driven decisions that can protect more important traffic from being discarded, leading to potential adverse business impacts.
Reaping the SDN benefits requires both an SDN-capable network and applications that provide SDN interfaces or application program interfaces (APIs). Already we're seeing these capabilities from vendors, including Cisco, Extreme Networks, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, Nectar and Sonus.
Specific use cases vary, including securing resources for VoWi-Fi calls, blocking unwanted traffic from entering the network, managing traffic flows across wired networks, and obtaining detailed per-call data to enable both reactive and proactive management of session quality.
Enabling adjustments across wide area network services
Another flavor of SDN benefits comes in the form of software-defined wide area network, or SD-WAN. In this approach, the WAN again has the ability to interface with network applications, but unlike the local area network (LAN) and data center focus of SDN, SD-WAN enables policy and real-time network adjustments across wide area network services, either by devices placed at branch, headquarters and data center locations, or in conjunction with carrier-based SD-WAN services.
Some SD-WAN vendors even have devices that are co-located with major cloud platform as a service (PaaS) or infrastructure as a service (IaaS) providers like Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft, thereby enabling on-premises SD-WAN devices to make forwarding decisions based on end-to-end latency and jitter for cloud-based applications such as voice, video and conferencing.
While there's much hype around SD-WAN and SDN benefits, there's also much promise in using one or both technologies to better enable support for UC. Now is the time to start speaking with your vendors -- both network and application -- to learn their SDN plans, and, more importantly, to make sure your network SDN capabilities align with your UC SDN options.
It may take a few more years until SDN-powered UC is a reality for most people, but the opportunity to save money and improve agility should only increase as services become more widely available and improve.
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