Year in Review 2012: Software Defined Networking glues together the virtualized world

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Cloud computing and SDNThe news: The IP environment has often been dominated, for short periods, by the latest industry buzzwords. Two years ago, everyone, it seemed, was talking about the cloud. Last year, data centers and virtualization became familiar terms. And as the second half of 2012 closes, the term "software defined networking" (SDN) is more and more on CIOs' minds.

It's not really surprising to see SDN on everyone's radar. With the rise of enterprise-level cloud architecture and the need to allocate resources remotely, SDN--the ability to have control of network traffic without having to physically access a cabinet or other hardware device--makes sense.

"By separating the control plane from the data plane, which essentially removes and then centralizes the 'brains' from the 'muscle' of the network, you can quickly make changes to improve the speed, reliability, efficiency and even security of that network," said Sarah Sorensen, senior security analyst at ACG Research, in a May FierceTelecom column. "You control the network's layout and flow, so you can define and distribute loads, optimize and prioritize traffic, and scale services or capacity up or down with just a few clicks--that is, in theory."

Big players like VMware-owned Nicira, HP (NYSE: HPQ), IBM (NYSE: IBM) and NEC have been active in testing and implementing SDN solutions this year. Most follow the OpenFlow standard, as does Big Switch Networks, a smaller vendor providing switches and virtual switches to operators.

Why it matters: It's all about having more control over virtualized environments.

"SDN addresses the problem that today's applications have little or only fragmented knowledge, control of or visibility of underlying networks and resources," said Michael Kennedy, principal analyst at ACG Research, in a September FierceTelecom column. "An essential element of SDN is that it explicitly links network control to each application's functional requirements."

The importance of SDN was recognized by service providers very quickly, but enterprises are rapidly coming to the table as well. A November survey by Infonetics said one-quarter of the enterprises the research firm interviewed said they have already deployed SDN in their data centers, and one-third plan to do so by 2013. Virtualization, security and application performance were the top three reasons for enterprises to adopt SDN.

But at the end of the day, it's the effect of SDN on a company's bottom line that will most likely convince decision-makers to adopt it. Kennedy said operating expenses see the most positive effects of SDN implementation, as activities like service order processing are dealt with more quickly and efficiently.

As more data comes in from the field, mostly in the form of use cases, it's becoming clear SDN has a big role to play in areas like hyperscale data centers--such as those used by Amazon or Google--in multisite enterprise WANs and in other data center cases. Software defined networking is simplifying many of the tasks needed to keep large operations running, and as the data center segment continues to grow, SDN's role will, too.