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SDN: Learn From The Big Boys

Big data is a big deal. Data has accumulated so rapidly that many datacenter managers find themselves piecing together hardware and software, networking a datacenter environment that resembles a "Franken-network" just to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. However, at the top of the data food chain there exist many examples of best practices and roadmaps others can follow.

Facebook began custom-designing the physical attributes of its datacenters in 2009, and now publishes specifications and designs -- including for its latest facility in Altoona, Iowa -- as part of the Open Compute Project. Google offers best practices online, many around energy usage and datacenter efficiency.

IT professionals in smaller datacenters can benefit from knowing where the big boys have been, and also where they are going next. New software-defined networking (SDN) technologies are just now beginning to reach the marketplace. Significantly, in 2011, Facebook, Google, Verizon, Yahoo!, Deutshe Telekom, and Microsoft founded the Open Networking Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to promote SDN and OpenFlow as a more cost-effective and adaptable approach to networking.

These large companies continually pour tremendous resources into developing their own cutting-edge technology in the datacenter -- incorporating new features needed to operate at higher levels of efficiency and reduce power usage, while increasing security and decreasing system downtime. Today, they are geared to take the next big leap into SDN, envisioning an environment where open standards and architectures will replace proprietary systems, and where programmable processors will replace hardwired switches.

The average company does not have the same resources as Google or Facebook to refit its datacenter. But it can follow the example of industry leaders and begin to retool its most archaic systems to potentially serve an evolving world of SDN. That will require looking at network equipment that is outside of proprietary vendor technology, which may be the first tentative step.

SDN in a datacenter environment
In an SDN world, there is an abstracted and centralized view of the overall network, which is optimized to the physical data flow through processors behaving as hardware switches and (hopefully) though a widely adopted common protocol such as OpenFlow. As a result, the overall network is directly programmable and agile, allowing administrators to dynamically adjust to changing traffic needs.

From a datacenter administration viewpoint, that means needs will change from hardware, firmware, and software perspectives. Processors may also need to provision remotely to new multiple operating systems, meaning boot times could suddenly become much more significant as a principal method of reducing down time. The footprint of the firmware needed to boot the processors also becomes much more important in a dense configuration where computer boards have replaced hardware switches.

These are just a few of the decisions that will face datacenter managers attempting to refocus their networks on evolving technologies. However, in the end, managers will gain greater flexibility to further optimize their datacenters based around corporate needs rather than vendor requirements.

Companies that turn to open source platforms will have a leg up in the development and implementation of SDN technologies. With open source, SDN tools can be customized to fit a customer's specific needs, giving open source providers an advantage over large networking companies that offer a drop-in solution. In fact, the most data-driven companies on the planet initially developed their own datacenters with the help of open source companies, because there was not a readily available solution that met their specific needs.

As SDN price levels drop and technology continues to advance, small and midsized datacenter operations will pursue implementation of SDN solutions. As of now, it seems that the majority of datacenters making the conversion to an SDN-centric environment have the resources and personnel to handle the transition. Over the next five years, SDN-centric datacenters will become a mainstream practice.

Today's companies cannot be bogged down in managing data when the real business mission is innovation. Technology, by its very nature, is changing rapidly. Networks must be able to adapt without interrupting operations.