John is a computer science student that prepared himself well for work-life by ensuring he took his CCNA and an MCSA before even completing school. He even started preparing for a security exam and dreams of being a great IT professional after school. There was one question he could not get out of his mind lately. After going on an internship for a local IT company, he realized his existing knowledge – that he thought was above average – seemed to have become obsolete. Everyone at the company he interned at was talking about how the new technologies are going to redefine everything. They kept talking about Software-Defined Access, Software-Defined WAN, Hyperconverged, Software-Defined Networking, Etc.
It is as if everything now has the expression Software-Defined about it and all of them talk about simplicity, ease of management, etc. What is happening in the IT world? Why is everything becoming Software-Defined? Do we need to upgrade our infrastructure to a software-defined environment? Is it worth the hype? Is it as simple as the vendors make it sound? Well to get more on this, stay with me in this article where I discuss all the software-defined madness, and how they relate to you.
If you work in Information Communication Technology, I bet you are always getting bombarded by this new wave of software-defined everything. There is one thing you have to note, it is coming to stay, and if you do not jump on the train on time, you risk being left behind. Let take a quick look at what each one of them is.
Server virtualization is a software-defined approach. Software-Defined is not a new thing. We are just applying it to much more things nowadays. IBM and VMware pioneered it a long time ago with Software-Defined servers when they made server virtualization technology mainstream. You pick a server that contains storage, memory, compute resources, and I/O modules, you install a piece of software on it and bam! It becomes 10, or 50, or 100 servers into one. This is where it is smart: a software layer provides hardware abstraction that makes the installed operating system believe it is installed on its hardware when in reality the hardware is a shared pool of resources for multiple virtual machines (or virtual servers). This is a key technology that is behind the cloud.
Hyper-Converged Infrastructure – HCI
So many applications are now running from the cloud. It then became important to build systems for the cloud. With traditional virtualization, the servers connect to a storage system and store the VMs in that storage. The thing with the cloud is it requires near-instant scalability and frictionless elasticity. Imagine the speed at which Amazon had to grow when Netflix decided to run a full videotheque that would instantly be available to millions of customers around the world on their servers? And that is just an example amongst thousands. It is simply not easy enough to add more storage Bays to the storage system. What about more memory and more computing resources for that same storage system? Scale-out storage systems might be a solution but then you need to grow the storage systems separately and then grow the server infrastructure separately.
Here come hyper-converged vendors to save the day. A storage system is just a glorified server with added capabilities. Besides, most servers used for virtualization already had storage controllers in-built and were used only to provide internal storage for the virtualization software. Nutanix, Simplivity, VMware, Etc. saw an opportunity. What if we could fill the virtualization servers (hosts) with disks and use software to provide a scaled-out software-based storage system that would not only be more resilient but faster than the existing storage solutions since the disks are immediately accessed (or local) rather than going through a storage network? It was brilliant. Not only your storage system would grow as fast as your computing resources (RAM and CPU) would, you could now leverage data locality and reduce the entire server virtualization stack (Server, Storage, Backup Software, Replication Software, etc.) into just the most fundamental building block: Servers. It was Golden. Cloud providers loved it. They got ease of growth, integrated and inherent automation, consolidated management, simplified integration to their other systems using APIs, and more.
Well, servers are virtualized, the storage is virtualized, the glue that puts all the servers together in the data center is the data center network. And the growth issues that are happening because of the cloud are reflecting in the data center as well. All of a sudden, users are creating distributed systems that talk to each other much more than they used to, putting a good amount of stress on East-West traffic network infrastructure (traffic from servers to other servers typically in the same datacenter). Applications are no longer built with one or two servers; a single application could be made of hundreds of servers (virtual machines). This also means data centers are now made of hundreds of thousands of servers to be able to meet the demand. You read it right. Running hundred thousand servers in a data center is not such a big deal anymore. Just check the power play that is ongoing between Microsoft and Google for who has a million or more.
Hold on a second and consider this. A million servers require at least 2 million network connections if we were to only connect each server to 2 network ports. A typical datacenter switch provides on average 48 ports, which represents more than 40,000 switches for our 1 million servers. Go on think about the management overhead. We needed a way to manage this networking mess efficiently, intelligently, and with a great lot of automation. The traditional way of doing things is no longer sufficient. There comes software-defined networking. Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) and VMware NSX are a few that build a network that is woven like cloth. All the 40k+ switches appear like a single fabric where your applications plug into.
We are no longer interested in managing or switching server ports but rather we want to steer application traffic and provide micro-segmentation. Optimized East-West traffic is extremely important, and we leverage the software layer to implement service stitching/chaining. SDN is the network built right for the data center with automation, ease of management, API integration, and uptime considerations woven into the fabric.
Software-Defined WAN or SD-WAN is the answer to a lot of sleepless nights spent by network engineers trying to perform traffic engineering, load-balancing, and quality of service across heterogeneous networks. The WAN (Wide Area Network) is the way a company with multiple sites or agencies provides access to the corporate data center.
Let’s assume you walk into a bank to perform a withdrawal the teller would take your form, input it into the system and perform a debit. Then some cash would be handed over to you. That is what happens on the surface, but in the back, your transaction had to be entered directly into the system so that other transactions coming would not go beyond your limit and put the bank at risk. So, the agency or branch office would have a WAN connection that gives them access to the corporate data center where your bank account and its information are stored.
The thing is WAN services are very expensive. A typical WAN connection costs a few hundred US dollars per month and every company needs to have more than one per location to ensure service continuity when one connection fails. This creates idle WAN connections that are being paid for which is not so great, and network systems provisioned that are under-utilized or sub-optimally utilized. On the other hand, Internet broadband has become very cheap and affordable over the years; they have become faster as well. The question then is: What if instead of getting a WAN connection, I could get an internet broadband connection and build my “WAN” over that connection? SD-WAN was born.
You know the drill. They are going to abstract the physical using software and provide ease of use, single-pane management, and a lot of fun features. You are right! SD-WAN builds a secured and encrypted WAN infrastructure using any type of transport (WAN, 4G or 5G, Cable and Wireless Broadband, etc.) Additionally, SD-WAN provides the ability to select what traffic has priority over what other traffic, load balancing over multiple links, automated failover and failback scenarios, internet breakout at the branch office, simplified management, and much more. All of that with a few clicks.
We looked at what is in the data center, we built servers, we handled the storage, we optimized the WAN. All that is left is the users that plug into this whole thing. It is time to re-invent the access network. The access network is the cubicle network outlet that your desktop PC plugs into or the wireless name that you see and associate your laptop or phone to whenever you get to the office. Do you often call IT because you do not have the right permission, or you are not able to reach a certain part of the network? Well, SD-Access does to the user-access network what SDN did to the server environment in the datacenter. It turns the entire access network into a single fabric that is policy-driven.
So, a user’s security entitlement is set once and maintained throughout the entire fabric. No more VLAN complexity, IP addressing complexity, etc. Imagine the beauty; you get the same type of access even when you move from one office to the other. Even when it is in another country. You never have to go to IT when you travel from one office location to another. Just go and work. And of course, automation. More, the network access could now be integrated with your HR software using APIs. Once you provision the employee role and department, once the AD credentials are created, it could automatically provide the right access to that user based on the department, role, etc. One additional thing is IOT (internet of things) which is becoming a big deal lately. SD-Access is built to handle the complexity and security requirements that come with it.
Whether you want to optimize your data center with Server Virtualization or grow efficiently with HCI, whether you want to simplify your data center operation with SDN or optimize your WAN cost and traffic with SD-WAN or you just want to have a simplified and secured access network, the plethora of software-defined solutions are there to make your life easy. As you can see the point is to always simplify by putting everything together as one cloth or one fabric or a single management domain. This eliminates management silos across major components. Are we evolving towards a world where the entire environment becomes a single fabric? Software-Defined IT?
The cost is usually high at the onset as is every new technology, and you may have to refresh some of your hardware. The installation and initial configuration process may be a little more complex in some cases, but the benefits are measurable and the long-term cost savings can easily be calculated. Software-defined is not for the faint of hearts it is for organizations that are investing in the future, that want to build a robust, simple, and highly secured infrastructure and create growth through technology adoption. Data is the new Gold; technology drives data and software-defined solutions are built with that in mind. Suddenly your IT staff can re-focus their attention, energy, and time into helping with innovation for the organization rather than daily firefighting. The hype is worth it and the train is en route, make sure you catch it at the right time.
Apotica deploys a large portfolio of Next-Generation technologies and is uniquely positioned to advise on the next steps to help with your software-defined strategy. You can request a free consultation here. To enquire about any equipment or software, call us on +233.54.431.5710 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Apotica, headquartered in Accra, Ghana and brings together the best information and communications technologies to help clients grow, compete and serve their customers better. Apotica is an ISO 27001 and 9001 Certified Organization.