Orchestration: The Tie that Binds SDN

Friday Dec 27th 2013 by Arthur Cole

Before software defined networking can achieve its lofty goals, the orchestration pieces need to fall into place.

For some, SDN’s chief benefit is the efficiency it drives into underlying network infrastructure. Others point to the dynamic configuration possibilities and broad scalability across internal and external cloud architectures. And, undoubtedly, some in the front office look forward to the lower capital and operating costs software defined networking promises to provide.

All of these things, however, hinge on one crucial aspect: orchestration. Software defined anything is only as good as the ability of disparate logical elements to work together. And of all the pieces of the SDN puzzle, it is this advanced level of orchestration and automation that represents the steepest learning curve for network managers.

As can be expected, SDN orchestration looks poised to be a major growth area for system and software developers in the coming years. In fact, according to Research and Markets, orchestration and cloud provisioning tools will comprise the majority of the SDN market between now and 2018, out-performing even SDN switching and controller activity.

The key to maintaining proper orchestration in a software defined environment is to align business applications with the abstraction and programmability functions of the network, says Extreme Networks’ Jake Howering. This gives the enterprise the ability to optimize network environments using not just static policies, but fully dynamic policies that can adjust to shifting application states or resource utilization patterns. This kind of "application awareness" makes the entire data environment much more responsive to the ongoing demands of users, whether they are churning through Big Data volumes, monitoring web transactions or performing back-end office functions.

And with cloud-based infrastructure quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception, an equally important component of the orchestration stack is its ability to extend over the wide area network. DukeNet Communications, a regional fiber carrier near North Carolina’s famed Research Triangle, recently unveiled a wide area SDN orchestration system capable of networking virtual machines and virtualized network services across multi-vendor environments. The platform utilizes technology from Cyan and Accedian Networks, which together allow DukeNet to fulfill dynamic resource provisioning requests using standard OpenStack and OpenFlow APIs.

An interesting side note in all of this is how things will change in the active management of network infrastructure. One of the first things to go will be the command line interface (CLI), according to tech analyst Mike Fratto. In the future, the SDN controller will handle all direct communications to network elements. The human operator need only tell the controller what is needed, and the resources should fall into place automatically. At the same time, the controller should have the ability to identify and correct network bottlenecks and other performance-inhibiting issues using a combination of advanced modeling and systems automation. Ideally, this should happen across Ethernet, OpenFlow and overlay networks. This will, however, require vendors like Juniper and Cisco to build up a fair amount of trust that their controllers are up to the task before we get that far.

Without orchestration, SDN is merely a collection of logical parts. The ability to weave them together will turn this new network infrastructure, advanced as it may be already, into a working fabric, which will finally propel the entire data center into the virtual universe.

Header photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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