Flip the switch: Making the transition to SDN

In today’s world, where everyone has a cell phone, a tablet, a laptop and maybe a few other smart devices, it’s necessary to be flexible to support the networking needs of your constituents and avoid a slow, overloaded network. When the ebb and flow of the day occurs, where people congregate in different but predictable areas throughout the day, how does the network respond to the variation in traffic over time? When coupled with the fact that the administration and maintenance costs of the network are higher than the equipment and environmental costs combined, many are turning to software-defined networking. SDN reduces those costs and allows network administrators to easily respond to the real-time variations in network traffic in order to increase customer satisfaction and retention.

SDN is not only in the lab and academia, network vendors are getting more involved and opening up their products to enable the interoperability necessary for a full SDN deployment. Cisco has made their physical boxes more programmable, with an open API. HP has created an SDN app store, believing it’s all about the software, to quickly and easily deploy SDN services. Physical switch vendors have also begun to make their devices more programmable through open APIs. All of this makes managing networking traffic substantially easier.

However, transitioning to SDN is not as simple as flipping a switch. It’s not an overnight transition and the legacy systems must be maintained even as you move to a new approach. It’s important to ensure that any vendor involved in the transition is able to support both old and new systems to make for a smooth transition. The other challenge is that each system will respond to the transition uniquely, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to adopting SDN. As we have helped customers begin to make this transition, we’ve found that approaches do tend to fit into two categories:

  • Mixed: Sometimes you want to put a “pure” SDN system in place, to see how your network might react, without removing your current system. If you think back to the early days of the DVD, imagine this as the time when you already had a VCR hooked up to the TV and you bought a new DVD player and hooked that up too. Each system can only support one format, but the TV as a whole can support both. For example, Google took their existing, consumer-facing network and left it alone. They then replaced the connections between their data centers and replaced it with an SDN, OpenFlow environment. This allowed them to see the utilization and systems issues, as well as the capabilities, of the new SDN system, without impacting the revenue-generating side of their business.
  • Hybrid: In other cases, you want to support both SDN and your traditional system together in a single box. You might imagine this as a bilingual person — able to speak both English and Spanish.  This approach might involve incrementally replacing the network, box by box, with hybrid boxes, so that the network can run both SDN and legacy systems, until one day, the entire network is able to support SDN.

Market transitions are never quick and SDN will be no different.  Steady, substantial progress has been made and more is coming. It takes time and investment in new hardware and software. However, with SDN implemented, administrating and maintaining the network will be easier, faster and — most importantly — cheaper. Our solutions can help make the transition smoother by supporting the network technology of both today and tomorrow and the flexibility to support either, in both a mixed and a hybrid deployment model.


Michael O'Donnell
Michael O'Donnell
As director of software business development for the Digital Networking division, Michael O’Donnell works closely with customers and product teams to ensure that engineers using QorIQ processors get up and running quickly on their designs with easy-to-use software solutions. A member of IEEE and SAE, he was an EDN Innovation finalist and has authored multiple papers. When Michael's not hiking Half Dome or running a marathon, he is spending time with his young children.

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