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Understanding how SDN and NFV can work together

Ed Tittel | Jan. 29, 2014
As software-defined networking and network function virtualization begin to take hold in the enterprise, it's worth examining each concept to see how they complement each other. The end result: More generic network hardware and more open software.

For 2013 and beyond, two of the most interesting and most used networking acronyms - and underlying concepts and technologies - have to be SDN (for Software Defined Networking) and NFV (for Network Function Virtualization).

Though many IT pros are inclined to stand these two concepts up against each other, as in SDN vs. NFV, these two revolutionary networking developments don't represent an either-or proposition. In fact, it instead looks very much like a both-and deal — as in, "both SDN and NFV are likely to find a place in modern enterprise networks and carrier infrastructures."

Though both terms are subject to interpretation, it's still worthwhile to proffer definitions to establish what SDN and NFV are about, where they originate and how SDN and NFV differ.

SDN: Separating Network Control Logic from Network Hardware
SDN comes out of large-scale IP infrastructures where network designers and implementers sought to simplify traffic management and achieve operational efficiencies by establish and exercising central control over packet forwarding. Over time, SDN has also come to describe an open networking environment where elements such as switches, servers and storage may be configured and managed centrally while running on standard hardware components.

The guiding principle behind SDN remains the separation of network control logic from the physical routers and switches that forward traffic from individual network nodes, based on a real-time view of the network as a whole. In fact, the Open Networking Foundation (a nonprofit consortium focused on SDN, defines it as an architecture that migrates control "into accessible computing devices" designed to enable "the underlying infrastructure to be abstracted for applications and network services, which can treat the network as a logical or virtual entity."

In essence, this means SDN control software sits atop a physical infrastructure layer composed of networking devices, with which it communicates via a control plane interface such as OpenFlow.The idea is to turn networks into flexible, programmable platforms to optimize resource utilization, making them more cost effective and scalable. By providing APIs for business applications and services, SDN also promises to recast information technology by integrating cloud-based services and capabilities, and high-speed networking, into the computing fabric.

NFV: Virtualization for Key Network Functions
NFV, on the other hand, comes from service providers interested in facilitating deployment of new network services by virtualizing networking devices and appliances, not through ongoing proliferation of physical devices to fill specialized roles such as routing, switching, content filter, spam filter, load balancer, WAN acceleration and optimization and unified threat management, and so forth. Participants assembled to create an Specification Group for NFV, whose member list includes a majority of major carriers and providers worldwide.


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