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SDN: Your Next Network

Software-defined networking has the potential to bring new levels of automation and efficiency to networks, but competing visions mean IT has to pay close attention to the differences.

Software-defined networking is here, and it needs a plan. From you. Vendors are revamping product lines and buying up companies to get a stake in the SDN market, doing their best to tag themselves as hip to the biggest networking technology change since Ethernet.

IT teams shouldn't wait and watch the vendors. Just under half of 250 business technology pros with some knowledge of SDN in our InformationWeek Software-Defined Networking Survey say they're only somewhat familiar with this new approach to networking today. Those people aren't hopelessly behind yet--only 9% in our survey have SDN in production or testing. But given SDN's potential, it's time for IT organizations to start figuring out where this strategy might make sense for their companies. A good starting point is to look at the three main approaches to SDN today and start forming an opinion on which if any is most viable at your company.

Software-defined networking broadly means letting networking pros specify configurations in high-level languages, and those instructions tell routers and switches how to prioritize and manage traffic. Our survey finds that IT pros who've implemented or plan to have SDN think it will boost network utilization and efficiency (42%), automate more provisioning and management (35%), and improve security (32%). Almost 30% think it will lower costs, but that's far from a given at this point.

SDN should help IT more quickly provision network services that underpin business applications. It should allow more automation of networking, letting companies put more resources into innovation than day-to-day operations.

SDN could prove highly disruptive to the networking industry. One approach to SDN would overturn the current role that switches and other network devices play by turning them into fast but dumb (and inexpensive) machines that forward packets, while network intelligence would reside in a centralized controller.

This approach threatens dominant networking vendors such as Cisco Systems, which commands high prices for network switches. Cisco and others are pushing back by proposing SDN models that allows for more automation and flexibility without doing away with the switch's prominent role in determining optimal network pathways. SDN also opens the door for virtualization vendor VMware to become a force in the networking market. VMware pledged $1.26 billion in July to acquire startup Nicira, which makes software to build SDNs.

One element that all of the SDN approaches share is the use of software interfaces such as APIs to provide more automation and enable orchestration of resources across multiple devices, such as switches, routers, firewalls, and load balancers. Such APIs should also spur the creation of applications for new network features and functions.

To help you chart a strategy, we'll explore three approaches to software-defined networking, then look at what's driving SDN and what's holding it back.

chart: How familiar are you with SDN?

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