Choosing the right software-driven network technology

When CIO Alan Crawford joined City & Guilds Group in 2016, the UK-based non-profit vocational training organization had made many recent business acquisitions as part of an effort to diversify its offerings. and expand its global reach. The organization, founded in 1878 by a collection of fishmongers, goldsmiths and other London delivery men, now operates in more than 100 countries on six continents. And while geographic expansion may have turned out to be strategically wise, it presented some challenges at the start for the new CIO.

A central issue involved the implementation of software-driven network elements to repair connectivity between company sites. A few months after starting his tenure as CIO, Crawford transferred a recently acquired New Zealand company to Microsoft Office 365, the preferred productivity suite in City & Guilds. But when she joined the service, which routes traffic to data centers in Europe, the company’s connectivity took a hit. Suddenly, basic tasks like sending emails, Skype calls, and sharing documents became time consuming and frustrating. Performance and morale suffered.

Crawford said CIOs are measured more by what doesn’t work, whether it’s a projector in a single conference room or connectivity in an office halfway around the world. He knew he had to fix the problem, and fast. “We have looked at all of our existing traditional technologies and approaches, and we have cleared the void,” he said.

Enter the software-defined WAN. Managed service provider Aryaka Networks approached initially suspicious City & Guilds network engineers with a Try it before you buy it ground. But when the organization installed the equipment box on-site, Crawford said the New Zealand team’s performance issues were immediately addressed in each of their Office 365 applications.

The software-driven network is increasingly becoming a reality, as City & Guilds discovered. But as software-defined networking technology first became a way to separate the network control plane from its data plane, the term developed to more broadly suggest programmability, automation or the functional separation of the “brain” of a network from its “muscle”, actions that result in greater flexibility and responsiveness, whether in the data center or the wide area network.

Enterprise networking professionals have a range of new terms to learn and understand that relate to software-driven networking. From SDN and Software Defined WAN (SD-WAN) to network virtualization, virtualization of network functions and virtual network functions (VNF) – companies are faced with a multitude of options to fundamentally change the way networks are designed, built and managed. While it’s easy to get bogged down in the software-defined tech alphabet soup, network managers must first determine the problems they want to solve before identifying which new technology to use, according to the company. analysts.

What’s in an SDN Name?

SDN, SD-WAN, network virtualization, and VNF each have subtle but important differences.

Software networking has developed particularly rapidly, widespread adoption in the WAN. In a recent survey of 300 networking professionals, research firm Enterprise Strategy Group found that three in four are already using SD-WAN or planning to do so.

SD-WAN can dramatically reduce branch outages; provide more bandwidth at a lower cost, as in the case of City & Guilds; and improve and simplify network management, said John Burke, CIO and senior analyst at Nemertes Research.

“SD-WAN implements all the virtuous things of SDN: centralized management, distributed execution, software control,” said Burke. “It can be extended on virtual or physical nodes, and it provides network virtualization.”

Related but not synonymous with SDN, network virtualization refers to the abstraction of the logical behavior of the network from its corresponding hardware. In the data center, for example, VMware NSX enables network managers to efficiently create separate and secure virtual networks in addition to shared physical equipment, a function known as microsegmentation.

Likewise, virtual network functions summarize and consolidate specific network applications that traditionally run on discrete boxes, such as routers or firewalls.

So in an alphabet soup of software-defined acronyms – SDN, SD-WAN, VNF – how do managers know which is most efficient for a particular software network? Lee Doyle, senior analyst at Doyle Research, suggested another question might be more relevant.

Pro tip: If the network continues to function well, you won’t have a budget for [an] SDN upgrade.

Greg Ferronetwork expert blogger

“It’s more of the use case than the technology,” he said. “What problem are you trying to solve? “

Networking blogger Greg Ferro expressed a similar sentiment, albeit more clearly. He suggested that major network problems are ultimately the best argument for investing in software networks.

“Pro tip: if the network continues to function well, you won’t have a budget for [an] SDN Upgrade, “Ferro tweeted.” Your career advances when the network continues to fail and you need to replace it. “

Crawford of City & Guild, who was largely unfamiliar with SD-WAN technology before implementing it, said he has learned to view any new product or service with a healthy level of skepticism. But the way SD-WAN solved connectivity challenges for the acquired New Zealand company changed its approach to network design.

“For us it was almost like a tactical solution, but it’s now influencing our strategic thinking on networking,” Crawford said, adding that City & Guilds’ various existing MPLS contracts were to be renewed, he would consider dropping them. lines leased for SD-BLÊME.

Regardless of the network problem at hand, Burke suggested that corporate network engineers prioritize fully centralized management capabilities and high levels of automation. They need to cast a wide net in initial product reviews and weigh more heavily on functionality than terminology.

“Your future network should be SDN,” said Burke. “But focus less on how people market an offer and more on what it can do for you.”

Software-driven network scalability

Flexibility and scalability were two issues Robinson Roca, chief network engineer and cloud architect at a managed network service provider in New York City, was trying to solve with a new monitoring platform. But he found that products from established suppliers were lacking.

“These applications were not scalable and difficult to maintain,” said Roca. “It took a systems person to run the server and a network engineer to maintain the software. It is an aspiration of resources.

He started exploring cloud-based options, eventually landing on Auvik Networks, who offers SaaS that automates network configuration, mapping and monitoring, with versions for enterprises and managed service providers.

The first network monitoring software he tried required a lot of manual intervention to get it right, but Auvik didn’t, Roca said. “[The application] was smart enough to know how everything was connected, so he didn’t need me to go in and say, “Connect this device to this device”. He already knew how it was connected, where it was connected and the type of connection used. “

Auvik needed an on-premise software agent that collects information about customer networks, so they could communicate with its cloud environment, but Roca knew that many of the small businesses it serves would be reluctant to buy and maintain. disposable customer premises equipment. To work around this problem, he built the agents on virtual servers running on existing Cisco routers on-premises – an example of network virtualization.

“Now I can just sell them the router they need anyway and charge my [network monitoring] candidacy, “he said.

Roca said Auvik plans to increase the bet even further, with capabilities rolled out by the end of 2019 that allow users to push updates to their network equipment directly from the platform’s interface. surveillance.

“I will be able to make a change… without having to actually connect to the equipment,” he said. “Or I can give my customer access to make whatever changes they want without having to know Cisco’s ‘jibber jabber’.”

Software is increasingly the engine of network design and management, but network managers must understand the subtle differences between the terms describing a software-driven network that affect network programmability and automation to take advantage advantages of flexibility and responsiveness. Yet the heart of the matter is the same: Know what problem you need to solve before you try to apply software-driven network technology.


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