Software-defined networks: All about the application

Structure Europe 2012 Joe Baguley Paul Strong VMware

When companies think about a move toward software-defined networks, they’re really thinking about how to build a “meta operating system” that brings intelligence to their applications. According to VMware CTO for Global Field and Customer Initiatives;Paul Strong, speaking Tuesday at our Structure: Europe conference in Amsterdam, we’re almost there, but the network is the final bottleneck that must be overcome in order to deliver true agility for applications.

Thanks to virtualization, he explained, applications are insulated from the infrastructure and “you can truly attack [server management] in a way you couldn’t have in the past.” But, he added, there’s a catch: While hosting multiple applications on the same server and spinning virtual servers up and down via software saved companies money, they wanted more. The advent of cloud computing showed companies what’s possible when you can dynamically move workloads and, indeed, whole VMs around a set of resources as policies might demand.

And that, Strong said, requires turning the black art of networking into a simple, automated function that even laypeople can handle. More importantly, you have to make it “application-centric rather than device-centric,” so that networking, compute and storage react in accordance with what applications want rather than serving as limiters on what an application can do. “All people truly care about is their apps at the end of the day,” he said.

However, as most IT professionals are aware, we haven’t yet reached this nirvana of intelligent software managing dumb hardware all with the application’s needs in mind. Strong’s colleague, VMware CTO for EMEA Joe Baguley explained that although VMware has shipped enough licenses for its vSwitch product to make it the world’s third-largest switch vendor (without ever having shipped a piece of hardware), there still are plenty of obstacles to be overcome. Some of them, of course, are cultural: Baguley noted a recent discussion with a CIO who wasn’t aware he could run a heterogeneous server architecture underneath his VMware hypervisor.

But that shouldn’t be too discouraging, Baguley said, because the change will happen. You can see the evidence, such as a fewer number of ASICs are being developed for networking gear, and the excitement around products such as new VMware property Nicira. Everything that’s currently being done in hardware will eventually be done in software, he said: “You only have to look at compute and storage to know that’s true.”

Check out the rest of our Structure Europe 2012 live coverage here, and a video recording of the session follows below.

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