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Software Defined Networking (SDN): Double-Clicking into our Point of View

A couple of weeks ago we spoke about our approach to Software Defined Networking (SDN) – an approach that is open and extensible, driven by experience and most importantly, one that lets you leverage your existing investments.

Over the last few months, we have also spoken in detail about this with thousands of customers at MMS, Interop, TechEd North America and TechEd Europe . Over the course of these conversations, we realized a few common themes emerging:

  • Confusion around means of realizing SDN that overshadow the benefits offered
  • Questions around opportunities for server and networking admins to enhance their careers
  • Non-traditional players like Microsoft will have significant roles to play

We felt this blog would be a good platform to discuss these in more detail since we are sure a lot of you have the same questions. Let’s double-click in.

Means of realizing Software Defined Networking:

SDN does not mean that you rip and replace your existing network devices and replace them with new “SDN aware devices”. In most cases, the cheapest and most flexible network infrastructure is the one you already own. If your network scales-up to meet your needs with a manageable OPEX, networking as you know it will continue to exist and you shouldn’t worry about jumping on the bandwagon just because everyone is talking about SDN.

With that said, networking is widely acknowledged to be the final piece of the puzzle requiring simplification in order to meet the agility and flexibility demands of modern datacenters. Centralized provisioning, management and monitoring of compute and storage is very common today.  Sadly, networking often remains stuck in the past – inflexible, ‘hard wired’ and complex.  This is the source of many of today’s most troublesome and difficult problems responsible for service downtimes and application slowdowns.  These are problems experienced by many large customers not just those operating at cloud scale running tens of thousands of hosts.  The complexity of the problems arising is beyond what can be manually fixed and/or monitored.

These real-world problems drove the need for a software defined solution to manage networking. The two approaches taken in large datacenters to do this are:

  • Isolated virtual networks/network overlays.  These sit on top of the physical network and are abstracted from the underlying networking hardware. Since the virtual networks are software defined, it allows admins to create and manage them from a centralized location depending on the needs of the application, templatize it and replicate it across their datacenters. As a result, management overhead is greatly reduced and a lot of mundane, error prone tasks are automated as a part of virtual network definition. A couple of important points to note here are that customers leverage existing hardware investments and this approach does not require any change to the way applications are written. Microsoft’s Hyper-V Network Virtualization and VMware’s Nicira are solutions that fall within this category.
  • Centralized controllers.  These control the physical network infrastructure directly from a centralized location.  This is often paired with an API for programming the network and gives the ability for software to program the network on the fly. This lets software, potentially even applications, dynamically configure the networks depending on current needs. This requires switches and routers to expose these functionalities (Southbound APIs) and a standardized interface for applications to consume them (Northbound APIs).  OpenFlow and Cisco One Platform kit are examples of this approach.   Since software directly configures the network, it needs to be rewritten to make use of this functionality. Custom applications that run within large datacenters, network diagnostic tools, apps that requires high fidelity connections, etc. are some examples where having such fine grained control will be helpful.

There are other variations of SDN solutions that exist today. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on just these two.

As you see in both above mentioned cases, the end goal is the same – simplifying networking using the power of software. In one solution the application is aware of the underlying network and controls it using different protocols. In the other solution, the network is abstracted depending on application needs and the complexity is hidden.  Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012 SP1 support and work with both these approaches. As highlighted in previous blog posts, Network Virtualization is built into Windows Server 2012 and customers can use System Center 2012 SP1 to create and manage virtual networks. With the Hyper-V Virtual Switch extensibility, partners like NEC have added functionality to the virtual switch to make it behave like an OpenFlow controller. Additionally applications like Lync are looking at ways to configure the network on the fly to ensure consistent call and video quality.  

Opportunities for Server and Networking admins

A common discussion that comes up in this new world of Software Define Networking is the opportunity it creates for Server and Network Admins to enhance their careers.  Traditionally both these groups have had well defined boundaries that have worked well for the most part – after all, network admins are the backbones of the modern internet that we all take for granted today.

Having said that, there is definitely room for improvement. When applications encounter performance issues, the blame is usually passed around before the actual issue is identified.  Identifying and fixing issues are often considered an ‘art’ with hundreds of manual steps. 

We don’t have a crystal ball to show us if these pain points will go away with SDN. But all signs are positive and bear good news for the careers of datacenter infrastructure folks and IT organizations in general:

  • Network Admins grow into network architects – SDN helps remove the ‘work’ from the job of network admins. They spend more time designing/architecting the network to meet the needs of the application as opposed to working on fixing low-value issues. This could include helping their organizations decide the right approach to SDN from the choices that we covered earlier. Additionally, since automation is core to SDN, this helps network admins build a new muscle which spans beyond areas that they have traditionally worked on. In the new SDN world, network admins can expect to frequently use tools such as Windows PowerShell, System Center Orchestrator, System Center Virtual Machine Manager, etc. which were once considered exclusive to Server Admins.
  • Server Admins will have a better understanding of how the underlying networking fabric is designed. Newer tools will be available that will not only help better diagnose and isolate network issues, but also be able to automatically fix them in many cases. Finally, they will have the flexibility to define abstractions that meets their business needs irrespective of how the underlying physical infrastructure is designed.

Why is Microsoft talking about SDN?

The last topic we wanted to talk about here is the role of companies like Microsoft in the transformation the networking industry is going through. In fact, in the keynote panel at Interop a back in May we had an unlikely combination of executives from Microsoft, VMware (both software companies) and Broadcom (chipset manufacturer) talk about SDN. These aren’t traditional networking players, so why are they talking about SDN?

In addition to the obvious term “software” in SDN, and Microsoft being a software company, there is another important trend that should be noticed. As more workloads are virtualized, the virtual switch is becoming the policy edge in networking as opposed to the physical switch. Networking teams work as much with the virtual switch in a heavily virtualized datacenter as they would do with the physical switch. With customers and partners building rich extensions and adding more functionality to the virtual switch, this trend is only going to improve. These non-traditional players will continue playing a significant role in years to come.

Additionally, Microsoft operates some of the largest datacenters in the world where we have faced a considerable number of challenges that many of you see in your datacenters. We onboard over 1000 new customers in Azure datacenters and make tens of thousands of networking changes every single day. Given the paranoia that exists around having every process automated, we have a unique opportunity to bring some of our learnings back into the product that runs both in our datacenters and our customer’s datacenters.

SDN is a paradigm that is evolving. This is not a change that will happen overnight. This is also not an ‘all-in’ choice that IT organizations has to take today that locks them in with a specific vendor or a protocol. In fact if we were to write a post about what SDN is not, this will be among the first few points that we will list.  There are incumbent players like Cisco and Juniper who are investing heavily in SDN. There are non-traditional players like Microsoft who are taking a fresh look at networking, along with a lot of startups innovating in this space as well.  Finally, there are industry consortiums like Open Daylight where some of the players we mentioned above are actively working on defining the direction of SDN.

Just as we discussed in the previous post, with Windows Server 2012, System Center 2012 SP1 and with the additional work we have delivered, side by side with our partners, you have the opportunity to explore the key benefits of SDN for yourselves. Try it out and let us know what you think:

  • Windows Server 2012 R2 Preview download
  • System Center 2012 R2 Preview download

Modernizing Your Datacenter with Software-Defined Networking (SDN)

Last week there was a flurry of information and activity around TechEd North America.  So many announcements and sessions, so little time. Several of the product groups posted information on what they have been working on, and we wanted to make sure and bring your attention to “Transforming your Datacenter with Software-Defined Networking (SDN)” on the Windows Server blog.

Software-defined networking is about enabling software – rather than the hardware – to dynamically manage the network in a way that helps you better meet the requirements of your applications and workloads.  Microsoft’s approach to SDN is grounded in our experiences designing, building and operating global-scale datacenter networks for services like Windows Azure.

For more information, see “Transforming your Datacenter with Software-Defined Networking (SDN)” by the Windows team.  It’s a short read and well worth your time.  Don’t forget to click the registration link at the end to sign up and be notified when the R2 product evaluation bits become available.

Transforming your Datacenter with Software-Defined Networking (SDN): Part I

With server virtualization, you are able to decouple a compute instance from the underlying hardware.  That enables you to pool compute resources for greater flexibility. However, to truly transform your datacenter, you’ve also got to deliver your storage, compute, and networking resources as a shared, elastic resource pool for on-demand delivery of datacenter capacity. Indeed, this datacenter-level abstraction is a critical part of Microsoft’s Cloud OS vision.    

Part of the challenge in holistically abstracting your datacenter resources is that the network hasn’t kept up with the advances in compute innovation. Today’s networks can be rigid due to tight coupling between your workloads and the underlying physical network hardware such as ports, switches, and routers. Network operations are overly complex since the management interfaces to configure and provision network devices tend to be proprietary; in many cases, network configuration needs to happen on a per-device basis, making it difficult to maintain an end-to-end operational view of your network. And if you’ve ever tried to move an application from one datacenter to another, you know how cumbersome it is to reconfigure the underlying IP addresses in the process.     

Defining SDN

Software-defined networking is about enabling software – rather than the hardware – to dynamically manage the network in a way that helps you better meet the requirements of your applications and workloads. This involves:

  • The ability to abstract your apps and workloads from the underlying physical network, which can be accomplished by virtualizing the network. Analogous to server virtualization, you need consistent abstractions that will work with your applications and workloads in a non-disruptive manner. For instance, you would need virtual abstractions for your physical network elements, such as IP addresses, switches, and load balancers. 
  • The ability to centrally define and control policies that govern both physical and virtual networks, including traffic flow between them. 
  • The ability to implement these network policies in a consistent manner at-scale, even as new workloads are deployed or moved around across virtualized or physical networks.

Delivering SDN

Microsoft’s approach to SDN is grounded in our experiences designing, building, and operating global-scale datacenter networks for services like Windows Azure. We’re adding over a thousand customers per day to Windows Azure. Enterprises trust Microsoft to enable them to deliver on-demand capacity to their business while ensuring secure isolation of their infrastructure and data. Multi-tenancy is built into Windows Azure, after all. To enable easy onboarding and workload portability, Windows Azure enables customers to bring their own IP address to our network. Also our global datacenters have to deal with tens of thousands of network changes every day – it would be impossible to manage such scale without software-enabled automation and control. 

Plus, Windows Azure runs on the same Windows Server and Hyper-V platform that we provide to our customers. The exact same. Windows Server and System Center bring our learnings and best practices from operating global scale datacenter networks to you so that you can realize the SDN promise of flexibility, automation and control.  

Let’s now click-down on the key aspects of Microsoft’s SDN solution to help you assess what this means for your organization.  

Built-in and production ready

Windows Server 2012 delivered Hyper-V Network Virtualization that helps you abstract your apps and workloads from the physical network using virtual networks. Virtual networks provide the necessary multitenant isolation while running on a shared physical network fabric, thereby driving up resource utilization. To ensure that you can carry forward your existing investments, virtual networks can be set up on existing networking gear and are compatible with VLANs. It is also worth noting that virtual networks can scale much better than VLANs for your private and hybrid cloud environments. Check out how EmpireCLS is virtualizing network traffic on top of their physical infrastructure using Hyper-V Network Virtualization.

With System Center 2012 SP1 Virtual Machine Manager, you can provision and manage virtual networks at-scale. You can define and control virtual network policies centrally and link them to your apps or workloads. When your workload is deployed or moved, the network configuration adjusts itself automatically. This is important because it removes the need for manual reconfiguration of network hardware, thereby reducing operational complexity while saving your valuable resources for higher-impact work. Virtual Machine Manager also helps you to control traffic flow between virtual networks, including the ability to define guaranteed bandwidth for your critical apps and workloads.

To seamlessly help you move your workloads within and across datacenters and clouds, we’re delivering a software edge gateway in Windows Server 2012 R2 that can be managed by System Center 2012 R2. If you’re in enterprise IT, this gateway will help you easily extend your datacenter boundaries to a service provider or Windows Azure, so that you can deliver hybrid infrastructure on-demand. If you’re a hosting service provider, this means much greater operational efficiency, since this virtual gateway is multitenant-aware and can support multiple customers on a single instance while meeting their throughput and availability needs. 

Open, extensible and standards-based

We want to ensure that customers have the choice of solutions that best support their existing investments and roadmap. We also want to help our partner ecosystem build value-added solutions and extensions on top of Windows Server and System Center. As a testament to our open, extensible and standards-based approach, we have great partner ecosystem momentum for our networking solutions.     

We’re committed to standards-based management to reduce datacenter complexity. This will help us enable datacenter plug-n-play so that devices “just work”. Specifically, we will simplify provisioning and configuration of top-of-rack switches using Windows Server 2012 R2 and System Center 2012 R2. As a great example of ecosystem support, Arista Networks announced full support for the Open Management Infrastructure (OMI) technology across all Arista platforms through the Arista EOS (Extensible Operating System) software.

Many customers asked us for the ability to deeply integrate Hyper-V virtual networking into their existing network infrastructure, such as their existing monitoring and security tools. To meet that need,   Windows Server 2012 introduced the Hyper-V Extensible Switch, which enables easy extensions of our hypervisor platform. The Hyper-V Extensible Switch also enables partners to build security and manageability extensions. Cisco announced general availability of their Nexus 1000V extension to the Hyper-V Extensible Switch, including integration with System Center 2012 SP1 Virtual Machine Manager.  Check out this datasheet, whitepaper, and webcast if you’d like to know more about this joint Microsoft/ Cisco solution.  NEC announced System Center 2012 SP1 Virtual Machine Manager based support for their OpenFlow-based Hyper-V switch extension. Additionally, 5NINE and inMon have in-market offerings based on Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V switch extensions. 

To provide additional flexibility and choice for customers, partners are building gateway appliances to bridge physical and virtual networks. F5 announced an appliance-based gateway that will support Hyper-V Network Virtualization environments, including integration with System Center 2012 Virtual Machine Manager. Huawei announced Hyper-V Network Virtualization gateway support in their core switches for Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2. Finally, Iron Networks announced support for Windows Server 2012 R2 and System Center 2012 R2 in an update to their in-market network gateway appliance. 

Microsoft is actively participating in industry consortiums like Open Daylight to promote industry standards and customer choice.

Hardware and software innovation

We believe that both hardware and software innovations are required to make these SDN promises real.   This is important for applications that might need direct visibility into the physical network to meet their performance needs, for instance. We continue to work with our network adapter and merchant silicon partners to deliver native hardware performance by ensuring that our platform takes full advantage of their unique hardware capabilities. Mellanox technologies and Emulex announced NVGRE task offload capability in their NICs to optimize network performance. We’re also working with Intel and Broadcom to support Hyper-V Network Virtualization in their chipsets.

Next steps

  • Learn more by viewing our TechEd North America session on SDN
  • Check out Microsoft’s perspective on SDN from the Interop keynote panel last month
  • Register to be notified once the Windows Server 2012 R2 and System Center 2012 R2 product evaluation bits become available

Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be diving much deeper into the Windows Server and System Center networking technologies that can help you eliminate the seams in your network and transform your datacenter. So make sure you’ll check back on this site frequently!  

As always, we’d really like to hear from you, so please feel free to share your thoughts and comments.