The Evolution of SDN and NFV to SD-WAN

By Doug Mohney April 14, 2016

In the beginning, everything on the network was wedded to hardware and that was expensive.  Compare that to the present, where every company touching the network has a software story and many former hardware companies are now software companies that have shed any connection to a physical device.  The latest evolution of the software-driven network is SD-WAN, a concept that has a straight line path from the earlier concept of software-defined networking (SDN).

SDN broke apart the lock hardware (and manufacturers) had on combining controlling data and data transport. Network control moved to software, enabling administrators to directly program how the network works.  Administrators now can dynamically adjust traffic flow as needed and do so centrally through a single interface, rather than having to tinker with individual switches and routers.  In addition, network managers can manage the network dynamically using automated processes they write themselves, tapping into open-standards and vendor-neutral processes.

While the push for SDN started in the data center, it became embraced by anyone running a network. Being able to adjust performance on the fly through software through a single interface was just too powerful to ignore.

If optimizing the movement of data around the network is the province of SDN, network function virtualization (NFV) is the processing of data when it is on the network.  NFV provides value added functionality to network processes, such as adding firewalls, session border control (SBC), load balancing, and even voice services.  The "virtualization" is the software move from dedicated appliances to software instances that can be spun up and down on generic services based upon need and demand.  For example, if there's a surge in video traffic, NFV can be used to add on transcoding functions as needed.  Once ended, the server resources can be freed up for other tasks as needed.

NFV enables service providers to scale services as needed and to add new services when created.  Anything that's a value-added service to network data is an NFV process.  Further, NFV frees up service providers and customers from a lot of specific and proprietary hardware that once had to be placed at the customer's location. The service provider can now offer and operate services from within the network as processes in a data center, rather than placing boxes in a physical location with all the overhead and headaches that get generated.  Customer win because they don't have to pay more for a proprietary and dedicated solution and can get more or less of a particular service on demand by simply making a request via web portal. 

Both SDN and NFV are built around the concept of open standards, such as the OpenFlow protocol.  Network devices can run any software and application that a vendor can build within the framework of open standards while services can be offered as a virtualized process without having to customize and/or retool settings each time a new offering is rolled out.

The latest and greatest software-driven network advance is the Software-Defined Wide Area Network, SD-WAN.  Take the tools developed for SDN and apply them to the enterprise network.  Enterprise network managers can juggle and manage the flow of data and services on the internal WAN, between the WAN and the rest of the world -- be it cloud services or the Internet at large -- and provide priorities to specific applications, as well as manage bandwidth consumption.  For a business with offices spread around the ground, home office/remote workers, and a VPN connection for everyone on the road, SD-WAN provides the tools to provide better services and monitoring.

SD-WAN plays in an interesting space, since it can overlap between different network providers, enabling an enterprise to have more flexibility in using a particular provider for different applications.  One provider might get voice priority because offers better performance while less time sensitive applications are routed onto a cheaper network connection.  And if one network provider goes down, SD-WAN can adjust on the fly to spread the load to the other connections.

I have no idea what will come after SD-WAN, but I'm sure we'll see more concepts coming from the software-driven network in the months and years to come.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Editor

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