Brocade’s Simon Pamplin: Digging deep into the future of SDN

With software defined networking (SDN), the network as we know it, along with the way businesses use computing processes, could be changed beyond all recognition.

And Brocade is at the very heart of that shift, being founder members of OpenFlow and OpenStack and pushing ahead with technologies that ensure its customers are SDN-ready.

Separating the data and control planes, SDN, as the name suggests, puts a layer of software between the components a network runs on and the network admin running them, leading in theory to a higher performance, more efficient networking process.

Yet there have been criticisms of SDN, ranging from accusations of overhype and lack of implementation, to lack of interoperability, to not being in the interest of larger vendors.

But as Simon Pamplin, Brocade enterprise pre-sales manager explains in a call to CloudTech, SDN is in an evolving, almost embryonic stage, meaning not everything’s going to run smoothly.

“SDN is still in its infancy, I think we all have to be honest about that,” Pamplin says. “It’s an emerging technology, emerging architecture.”

Brocade heavily utilises Ethernet fabrics, replacing the more traditional Ethernet architecture to give more operational functionality and greater efficiency. It’s a technology which Pamplin sees as vital to the success of SDN.

“The underlying network has to be an Ethernet fabric – and I say has to be, because it’s the only thing out there that’s flexible enough to be able to move and change, and get the performance required for an SDN-controlled network,” Pamplin explains.

“The main benefit [of Ethernet fabrics] is that you actually don’t need as much equipment to the same or better bandwidth capacity, so you’re not investing a huge amount of money on top of existing kit.”

Yet the biggest, most transformative aspect of Ethernet fabrics making it fundamentally different to all networks before it, is its ‘always-on connectivity’.

“The full capacity you pay for is what you use,” Pamplin notes, “and if any of those links fail for any reason, you don’t have an outage while the system works out what to do.

“The Ethernet fabric automatically reroutes...because it’s aware of the next path it needs to take. So it’s far more resilient to any outage that may occur within the network.”

“I might be doing myself out of my job for this”

As a result of its self awareness and always-on connectivity, it means that as the network’s function changes, so does the role of the network admin.

Pamplin cited the case of one admin who “didn’t touch his network” for 12 months, and feared “he thought he might be doing himself out of a job” for saying it.

“He didn’t need to touch it,” Pamplin explains. “He just added switches to it, and just let it grow himself – he didn’t have to redesign it. This thing is looking after itself, it’s scaling as I was told it would scale, and I haven’t had to go and re-architect it.”

Pamplin calls the subsequent shift ‘an evolution of networking’.

“Let’s face it, we’ve built networks the same way for the last 20 years – so we look at SDN and almost see a blank sheet of paper and think ‘well, why did I do it that way?’”, he says.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Last week Brocade released alarming research results; one in three business suffered ‘multiple’ network outages a week, with 16% of companies surveyed experiencing daily downtime.

This, understandably, affirmed the SDN trend. “I think the results were probably worse than I was expecting, which is, I suppose in an ironic way a good thing because it backs up the message we’re pushing out to people,” Pamplin says.

“The networks people are running have been perfectly fit for purpose for many years, but the way businesses are moving now and the agility required in the network infrastructure, they’re just creaking at the seams, and it’s starting to expose some of the limitations of the designs and architectures that were put in place many years ago,” he adds.

Yet as emergent as SDN is, it’s not surprising to see some of the criticisms. ZDNet recently hosted a debate concerning whether the concept was hyped, yet given Cisco, IBM, Google and Rackspace already have a stake, it’s arguably gone beyond that stage.

However, one of the more intriguing comments made in recent weeks has been that SDN is where cloud was a few years ago; organisations knew it was going to be big, but couldn’t see the monetisation opportunities.

“It’s a very interesting comment,” Pamplin admits. “If you look at the way cloud has relied on virtualisation to enable that mobility, I think SDN has been waiting for something like an Ethernet fabric to create the very flexible network architecture and infrastructure to enable SDN to then have the control of flow of the packets within the network.

“I think Ethernet fabric is an enabler of SDN, and SDN is going to be a massive enabler for business.”

As for a lack of a standard, it’s something taken into consideration by Brocade.

Pamplin explains: “If you look back through Brocade’s history, we’ve always worked on expanding the open standards and working with the standards bodies to make sure that our products, be they storage, data, Ethernet fabrics, they’re all the most open and compatible products out there.

“We’re not locking people down into the proprietary model at such an early stage in the development of SDN. We see this as a whole network architecture; not storage, not data, it’s just networking suitable and fit for purpose for the data centre of the future.”

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