The world of networking is moving rapidly toward software-based systems that offer improved automation, customization, interoperability and platform independence. Software networking is critical to supporting the adoption of new IT and network architectures, including hybrid cloud, the internet of things and 5G. Instead of assuming service providers and enterprises will choose from software-defined networking, network functions virtualization and network virtualization as separate technologies, software networking takes a broader approach to running networks using software.
This high-level approach to software networking combines elements of SDN, NFV and network virtualization into one category, with multiple use cases and customer types. Software networking contains the following attributes:
- Automated deployment, configuration and management;
- Support for multi-tenancy and ease of scalability via cloud resources;
- Easily adaptable, customizable and programmable with open APIs;
- Open, standards-based, multivendor and interoperable with a variety of other network software, like NFV management and orchestration (MANO), analytics, security and applications;
- Platform independence via software abstraction that includes the ability to run on Intel, ARM, white box switches and other open hardware; and
- Supports a centralized or decentralized architecture with a variety of hypervisor, virtualization and container technologies.
Software networking supports a wide range of deployment use cases, including data center, campus LAN, wide area network, branch, and telecom network edge and core scenarios. It also spans across the spectrum of customer types, including enterprise -- large and small business or government, for example -- communications service providers and cloud service providers.
Software networking standards
IT and networking professionals truly suffer from having too many choices when it comes to designing a next-generation software-based network. More than 100 suppliers across the software networking landscape are focusing on specific applications, MANO and infrastructure of all use cases and customer types.
The many standards organizations have not, at this point, helped to specify clear blueprints for building software-based networks. Standards bodies with relevant work on software networking include the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, Open Platform for NFV, Open Networking User Group, Metro Ethernet Forum, Internet Engineering Task Force, Open Daylight and OpenStack. Open source network software is just starting to mature, and buyers remain unsure which standards are the most likely to gain market traction.
Software networking implementation status
Hyperscale cloud providers. Hyperscale cloud providers, including Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook, are at the leading edge of software networking implementation. With their massive networks and immense resources, companies like Google have leveraged open source software to build their own network software. Facebook has gone further and developed its own standard for data center switching hardware. The large cloud providers have demonstrated the broad capabilities of software networking to redefine how data center and WANs are built and operated.
Communications service providers. Tier-one service providers are rapidly leveraging SDN and NFV software to evolve their networks to be more efficient, flexible and cost-effective. Several service providers, including AT&T, have set aggressive goals to virtualize up to 80% of their networks in the next few years. Key investment areas for service providers in regard to software networking include:
- Data center
- Network core
- Network edge
- Virtual customer premises equipment and software-defined WAN (SD-WAN)
- 5G wireless networks
The coming migration to 5G wireless networks will accelerate the use of software on standardized hardware platforms, starting in 2018.
Enterprise. Enterprise buyers have been the slowest of the three groups to deploy software-based networks. Lack of a clear business case, legacy equipment, organizational inertia and limited resources have hampered software networking deployments in many organizations. A plethora of choices and the inability to identify winning long-term software networking technologies has allowed many enterprises to continue with the status quo of hardware-based network infrastructure for campus and data center networks.
The rapid pace of SD-WAN deployments is leading many enterprises into the era of software networking. The clear business case of better performance has led to branch deployments reaching the thousands in large retail and financial services firms, with projections for fast growth in other companies.
Recommendations for IT professionals
The benefits of software networking have been clearly demonstrated across multiple use cases, a range of verticals and customer types. Software networking provides the abstraction from the hardware layer that provides the flexibility, automation and multivendor support required for current networks. Software networking enables hybrid cloud data centers, migration to 5G, the ability to support geographically decentralized offices and improves the ability to support the internet of things.
The long-term market is moving toward network as a service -- as opposed to networking as a number of boxes. The challenge for IT professionals is to pick the right standards and partners to help the journey to more agile networking. A lack of standards -- or too many -- and no clear supply-side market leader means IT professionals should start to implement software networking with clear use case advantages.
The pace of standards affects SDN and NFV deployments
The future of the data center is hybrid
IoT devices get some SDN support