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A Guide To The Software-Defined World

  • The IT industry loves labels, and the label du jour is "software-defined." Vendors and industry groups are slapping it on everything. There's software-defined networking, software-defined storage, the software-defined perimeter and even software-defined buildings (who knew?). If your head's spinning from the plethora of software-defined this and that, we hope this guide provides some clarity. Welcome to the wide -- and sometimes wacky -- world of software defined.

    (Image: geralt/Pixabay)

  • Software-Defined Networking

    The software-definition craze began with SDN, where the label actually served a useful purpose at one time. Originating with the OpenFlow protocol work by Martin Casado and others at Stanford University, the term helped to emphasize the idea that networks needed to move beyond their dependency on physical devices and embrace automation in order to advance. Today, practically every new product claims some SDN aspect, which only creates a great deal of confusion for the average network engineer. The Open Networking Foundation, which promotes OpenFlow, provides this SDN definition.

  • Software-Defined Storage

    Not to be outdone by networking, the storage industry quickly began touting the benefits of software-defined storage. IT analyst firm Storage Switzerland defines SDS more specifically as "the abstraction of storage services from the physical storage hardware." According to George Crump, president and founder of Storage Switzerland, there are several vendor categories in the SDS market, including vendors that represent the next-generation of storage virtualization, ones that abstract storage controller hardware, and vendors that abstract the management of the storage, but use the capabilities that are already in place. Since a lot of products can claim some form of SDS, he advises IT pros focus on the problems they're trying to solve.

  • Software-Defined Datacenter

    Of course, once you have software-defined networks and storage, a software-defined datacenter to keep them in is a natural next step. In a Network Computing blog post, Joe Onisick attempted to dissect the latest incarnation of the buzzword, explaining how the technology distinguishes itself from cloud computing. According to Onisick, a SDDC is one in which the configuration of hardware is done through upper-level software systems, which allows new services to be turned on or off rapidly and existing services to grow and shrink as needed. The SDDC's ability to support legacy enterprise applications differentiates it, he said.

  • Software-Defined Perimeter

    Moving beyond the enterprise, the Cloud Security Alliance launched the Software Defined Perimeter initiative last fall to develop a security framework to protect cloud applications from network-based attacks. Although it sounds more like a military maneuver than a security technology, according to the CSA it's designed to incorporate security concepts such as federation and geo-location, along with security standards such as PKI and TLS to provide secure connectivity from any device to any infrastructure. Would it be rude to ask about the need to define the perimeter, after migrating to the cloud to remove it in the first place?

  • Software-Defined Security

    Applying the software-defined moniker to security in general is a bit of a head-scratcher, for as Bill Kleyman noted in a blog post earlier this year, it's springing up "as if information security has not always been based a great deal on software." Still, he cites Palo Alto Networks and Check Point Software Technologies as examples of "how an enterprise can deploy intelligent, software-based, virtual security appliances throughout the entire network." Check Point calls what it's doing "software-defined protection," which it describes as a three-layer security architecture comprised of enforcement, control and management layers. So we'll concede that there are some cool security products out there. But c'mon, people, security has always been about software -- maybe it's time to for your marketing folks to put their thinking caps on.

  • Software-Defined Buildings

    This one sounds strange can software define something as tangible as a building? Probably not, but it can clearly be used to influence the design, as well as the management and operations. The SDB project at UC Berkeley, which launched early last year, seeks to "design, engineer, and evaluate the foundational information substrate for cyber-physical systems in a concrete, canonical form," leading to the "creation of efficient, agile, model-driven, human-centered building systems." SDB aims to figure out how to harness trends such as cloud storage and scalable processing to improve modern commercial building design, which the project describes as typically closed or based on proprietary interfaces and difficult to extend.

  • Software-Defined Power

    The building using the most power of all is the datacenter, so you'll want to be sure to monitor resource usage there. And -- lo and behold -- Power Assure touts its datacenter power management tools as "software-defined power." The company describes the technology as an extension of the SDDC that reduces the risk of outages by "matching the IT application load level to the most reliable and cost effective source of power at any given time." In a Gigaom Research white paper underwritten by Power Assure, David Linthicum said software-defined power "is about abstracting power away from the physical dimensions" and "abstracts the datacenter itself by dynamically moving the application load between datacenters." Again, using software "defined" when power is actually managed or monitored by software pushes the boundaries of reason. We'd rather see companies come up with something new or use a more accurate phrase.

  • Software-Defined Environment

    IBM is also jumping on the software-definition bandwagon with both feet. Not only has the company announced a new portfolio of software-based storage products, it also has an all-encompassing "software-defined environment" or SDE. "Imagine an entire IT infrastructure controlled not by hands and hardware, but by software," the company gushes in a SDE overview on its website. This may be going just a little too far for us to swallow, however. IBM says SDE optimizes compute, storage, and networking infrastructure, while shared software management tools dynamically manage workloads. That makes sense, as far as technology goes. Is the company proposing we need a whole alternate universe to manage it?

  • Software-Defined Business

    Here's a term that basically any company with a computer can latch onto. Application performance management vendor, AppDynamics, is playing up the phrase "software-defined business" to help push its latest product. In the age of the software-defined business, the ability to develop, test, deploy, operate and analyze applications within highly complex and distributed architectures is inextricably tied to the success of any company," Jyoti Bansal, the company's founder and CEO said in a prepared statement last month. Wonder if he came up with that all by himself?