Traditional networks were once the skeletal foundations of our IT infrastructures. Comprised primarily of hardware, these static networks required physical effort and manual intervention to make significant changes.

Innovations such as data center virtualization and cloud computing relieved some of the burden created by these older networking technologies. But now a new technology, software-defined networks (SDNs), is simplifying and streamlining networking.

SDN technology abstracts the network functionality, separating it from physical hardware – and decoupling the data plane from the control plane. Enterprises can use the centralized control plane to make decisions and set policies, and they can do it at scale. The hardware acts as the data plane that responds to any changes made to the control plane. By making the infrastructure more elastic, SDNs help companies gain new agility and flexibility in their networks.

SDN can also virtualize network functions, relieving the need for purpose-built hardware. In the past, companies purchased different devices needed to deliver networking functionality – routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, and the like. With SDN, the network is now software- based, so these functions can be delivered virtually. You can also use software to increase capacity or introduce new functionality.

This software-based technology improves network agility and flexibility. If you need another router to meet today’s traffic demand, you can create one virtually.

If you don’t need it tomorrow, you can remove it. Enterprises can rapidly respond to changes in market demand or customer requirements. SDN supports innovation in a way that static networks cannot.

The possibilities for SDN technology range from simple additions to an existing network to more complex configurations and new architectures. Many companies begin by adding intelligent, application-aware routing, followed by network function virtualization, automation features, and network self-healing capabilities.

Getting Started

The following questions can help you choose the right SDN technology options.

Are current network function capabilities built into the SDN technology? Are they extensible?
Common networking technologies may be virtualized today and are highly effective. However, the benefit of SDN is that it allows you to future-proof your infra- structure. You should plan on investing in solutions that are built to accommodate future needs. Look for extensible technology that allows you to add functionality as your deployment matures and your requirements change.

Will the SDN technology help solve for the unknown?
Yes. You don’t want to replace one set of limited capabilities with another. Think about where your business is heading and which changes may happen in the future. Look for SDN solutions that will allow you to add the types of services that you may not necessarily need today.

Can the solution support exponential thinking?
Absolutely. With SDN, there is great opportunity for innovation. Think about how SDN can help you write applications differently. How could your business benefit if the application could speak to or respond to the network directly? What if you could rapidly create or change services based on market demand? This is the kind of innovation that can help your company differentiate itself from the competition. It will also better prepare you to respond quickly to potential interruptions to business continuity.

Advanced SDN Capabilities

In the past, networks did not differentiate between applications and handled them all equally. Today’s enterprises have hundreds or thousands of applications. Some are more critical than others to the success of the business.

Perhaps a videoconferencing application is exceptionally important to C-level executives. Maybe finance needs the highest possible throughput each month when closing the books. Or a manufacturer wants instant insight into customer demand or supplier commitments, especially in advance of peak sales periods. SDN technology allows you to prioritize and differentiate each application.

In addition, SDN technology allows you to ensure consistent, predictable application performance – regardless of geography or user demand. Important applications are given high priority. When demand is high, the technology moves less critical programs to alternate paths. As a result, users always get the desired application experience.

Network telemetry offers real-time insights into how the network is performing, so applications can more intelligently use available resources. This prevents organizations from overbuilding capacity and helps companies maximize the value of their current IT in order to ensure optimal performance of the network.

Programmable SDNs offer automation tools you can use to change policies. IT administrators can make an adjustment – for example, increasing throughput for a customer-facing medication ordering Web site during a pandemic. When an administrator changes the policy at the central location, the SDN technology uses orchestration to populate the change automatically throughout the network.

Administrators can also define – with far more granularity and at scale – network service levels received by different users and user groups. With this contextual awareness, networks can be programmed to provide the highest quality service to certain applications, organizational VIPs, or user groups – consistently and specifically as needed.

In truth, IT administrators could have made these changes before SDN. But the manual effort would have been time-consuming. And changes could not be made at scale. With today’s SDN technology, administrators can change performance levels, evaluate new network data, and change them back again – quickly and with minimal effort.

Context-aware SDN technologies can also help network administrators respond to new demands, such as a change in data traffic patterns. In case of merger or acquisition activity, you can use SDN technology to integrate with the new organization’s network. During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, organizations who had deployed SDN have been able to quickly adjust to new traffic patterns and network requirements resulting from work- from-home mandates. Because the network layer is programmable, administrators can make changes within hours. And automated SDN technologies can execute the revisions in moments, without any manual intervention.

The Role of 5G

5G networking technology is intrinsically connected with SDN technology. Verizon is using millimeter wave technology for our 5G network, which is tailor-made for applications that require more and more bandwidth. We’ve been building our own SDNs for years to enable the ultrawideband 5G networks we are deploying. SDN technology gives us the flexibility to quickly repurpose 10 GB to 100 GB of bandwidth to cell towers as traffic patterns change.

Combining 5G with a mobile edge compute (MEC) platform takes SDN technology to the next level. MEC combines an ultrawideband network with cloud services to allow enterprises to develop large-scale, latency- sensitive applications at the edge. It also puts compute power closer to the end user and allows applications to respond much more quickly, often in near-real time.

In a mature SDN environment where automation is deployed, SDN technology running on 5G and MEC can help you make decisions quickly. Picture a manufacturing company that employs cognitive video of the shop floor. SDN allows operators to see a product defect and take action quickly – such as shutting down an assembly line. The elastic environment includes automation that reacts to environmental changes and makes decisions, with learning capabilities that change the application or fix whatever is broken, all in near-real time.

Automated Improvement

One of the most satisfying parts of my job is seeing how clients deploy SDN technologies to create a platform for innovation. For example, one retail company is now better able to adjust to unpredictable demand.

Traditionally, in a demand spike, sales rise for specific items and personnel check the warehouse for more inventory. If inventory is not in the warehouse, they might contact supply chain partners to see when a new shipment could be sent, making a lag in product stocking common.

SDN-enabled technology, coupled with integrated inventory management, has considerably shortened restocking intervals. Without human intervention, the application requests shipments of the product to the store. If the demand is high in other locations, the application takes steps to make sure inventory is replenished where it is needed.

These functions are built into the process workflow. SDN can even touch the logistics process, sending instructions on which products to load onto the delivery trucks. With this automated dissemination of knowledge, the supply chain can be significantly shortened, perhaps by days or even hours. Retailers can better respond to demand spikes, keeping shelves stocked. Thanks to SDN, integrated applications, and automation, retailers can pride themselves on having the inventory they need.

Risks and Rewards

Deploying SDN is not without risks.

As with any new technology, misconfiguration is possible for those who pursue complex deployments without adequate training. While SDN offers benefits that may encourage some enterprises to be reactive and take quick action, they must consider second-order and third-order consequences of their changes. We tell our clients to deploy SDN in an intentional way. Companies must look beyond a technology-only focus and think about the end-to-end workflow that SDN may provide for them.

Now that the network is essentially software-based, care must be taken to protect dynamic and evolving threat surfaces. It’s important to embed a zero-trust security model into the architecture from day one, rather than bolting it on later.

Expert services can help companies ensure they avoid common pitfalls. I tell clients: Do your homework. Test the technology and examine end-to-end process workflows. Don’t just follow the hype.

Professional services can be a good investment, helping you through the selection, implementation, and tuning processes. Choose experienced providers, who can give you the expertise needed to integrate SDN technology with the applications for maximum benefit. Although you may be able to make SDN work, without expertise you won’t realize the full potential of the technology.

About Horizons by SAP

Horizons by SAP is a future-focused journal where forward thinkers in the global tech ecosystem share perspectives on how technologies and business trends will impact SAP customers in the future. The 2020 issue of Horizons by SAP focuses on Context-Aware IT, with contributors from SAP, Microsoft, Verizon, Mozilla, and more. To learn and read more, visit www.sap.com/horizons.

Read more SAP by Horizons stories on the SAP News Center.

Debika Bhattacharya is vice president of Global Solutions for the Verizon Business Group at Verizon Communications Inc.