Software-defined networking (SDN) is coming. We have been hearing that for some time and, so far, it has been elusive. That is not to say there are not some nascent blips on the SDN radar screen. However, for the most part, it has just been noise. But now some traction is beginning in the wireless segment.
SDN is not all that new. The concept has been around for over a decade already. In fact, its origins harken back to the Universities of Stanford and UC with the creation of the OpenFlow protocol back around 2008.
SDN has seen a bit more traction in the computing segment in areas such as cloud computing, internet-based networking and network security. Companies who are prominent in accelerating this traction include Cisco, VMware, Pluribus, and Juniper, as well as other, not so visible, companies.
SDN has had a bit of a hard time gaining traction in the wireless industry. One of the reasons is that wireless is not as wed to data centers as the computing biz. Compared to computing data centers, most of the wireless data is not generally captured, stored and regurgitated. However, that is changing. With the proliferation of streaming, more and more data are being housed for dissemination. For that, SDN holds promise.
What SDN does, in a sense, is separate the network control plane from the forwarding plane to enable more automated provisioning and policy-based management of network resources. As resources explode in the wireless ecosystem, that becomes more important as housed data flows around the network, particularly with upcoming 5G. SDN helps manage and direct this traffic among routers and switches.
Furthermore, as the Edge becomes a critical element in wireless networks, particularly with 5G and Wi-Fi 6, SDN will have to become the norm.
It will also become necessary to move toward open standards, most likely those developed by the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). ONF (and there are others but, this one has the most chance of success) provides a platform to allow any open standard-compliant vendor’s hardware to be integrated into the network.
For wireless, especially with more and more streaming and collected data, with respect to COVID-19 (tracking), SDN centralizes the network intelligence by providing comprehensive visibility into a network. This can be used for automated dynamic routing to decide the optimal paths. The control path is the centralized decision-making entity. The data path, which is responsible for the actual forwarding of data packets, is still distributed throughout the network.
While this is a bit technical, it gives a telco a much better option for managing data that can be critical to the pandemic.
The second case for wireless involves the datacenter with respect to the digital transformation. As enterprises move to digital platforms and the cloud, SDN overlays and fabrics will extend to multi-cloud application environments. This will require intelligent routing and resource management of data, both wired and wireless. This flexible routing will support the different communications patterns that exist in wireless networks.
SDN also offers a variety of security benefits. Network users and providers can split up a network connection between end-users and the data center and have different security settings for the various types of network traffic. Flexible routing can support the different communications patterns that exist in wireless networks.
As well, SDN makes it easier to collect network usage information, which can be used to develop the improved algorithm design used to detect attacks. SDN-enabled security can support intelligent responses on a granular basis by selectively blocking malicious traffic while still allowing normal traffic flows.
Additionally, SDN security applications can act on any anomalies by diverting specific network flows to special enforcement points or security services, such as firewalls and intrusion detection/prevention systems. This is not possible with typical hardware where all planes are integrated.
However, that is not a freebee. SDN opens up the network to a greatly expanded attack footprint that now includes the control plane as well as the data plane.
If attackers can hijack the control plane or the SDN controller, for example, they would essentially own the entire network and all its contents, possibly indefinitely.
As well, any infections in the data plane layer can, in theory, spread much more quickly because an SDN will be more pervasive in terms of deployment than server virtualization. It is also possible that communications difficulties and disruption between the control plane and data plane can create vulnerable spots in terms of new ways for attackers to breach the network perimeter.
SDN promises much more of a potential benefit with 5G. With the added features of 5G (enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-low latency, ultra-wide bandwidth, massive machine-type communications, network slicing, and more) SDN will be a key controller for virtualization and network agility.
The time for mainstream SDN is on the horizon. COVID-19 has added a dimension in the wireless world that will add, at least temporarily, the need for much tighter data tracking. For that, SDN can step up.