There’s an emerging paradigm in software-defined networking (SDN).

At the most basic level, SDN adds a layer of software or programming between the network hardware and the applications. If you want to change your network routing, you just change the software. And, many networking experts believe that the traditional routing world most of us are accustomed to has become far too complex to handle demands.

Most networks today are setup where there can only be one route and one destination for information to flow. Imagine a business with only one postal address to receive mail, and that the mailman delivering it can only go one way. In a software-defined network, administrators can shape traffic from a control console without having to touch individual switches. Network rules can change when necessary and is especially helpful in cloud architectures.

With SDN, according to many definitions and applications currently circling the Web, enterprises and carriers can gain control over the entire network from a single logical point, which greatly simplifies network design and operation. SDN also simplifies the network devices, since they no longer need to understand and process thousands of protocol standards but merely accept instructions from the SDN controllers.

Last year, the Open Networking Foundation assessed that the explosion of mobile devices and content, server virtualization, and the advent of cloud services are among the trends driving the networking industry to reexamine traditional network architectures.

“Many conventional networks are hierarchical, built with tiers of Ethernet switches arranged in a tree structure,” the industry non-profit consortium stated in a white paper dated April 2012. “This design made sense when client-server computing was dominant, but such a static architecture is ill-suited to the dynamic computing and storage needs of today’s enterprise data centers, campuses, and carrier environments.”

Consolidated Data Center

One of the most talked about applications of SDN is the consolidated data center and the idea of Infrastructure as a Service. Telecommunications carriers in particular who support millions of subscribers are looking at SDN as a huge swing in competitive advantage as well as a cost saver.

The anticipated carrier use of SDN relates to what has been coined as the “Internet of Things” or “Machine to Machine” (M2M). Under this vision, the amount of end-points accessing the Internet will grow to include “things” such as home appliances, cars, doors, lights, health monitors, and just about anything with an on-line connection.

According to GigaOM, large tech companies spent roughly $1.6 billion buying networking startups in 2012. The $1.26 billion acquisition of Nicira by VMware last summer was the biggest deal last year as more networking deals and SDN deals in particular, were red hot in 2012. Market research at IDC also recently noted that projected growth in SDN will be approximately $360 million in 2013 to $3.7 billion by 2016.

Mark Johnson, former interim executive director of U.S. UCAN and chief technology officer at MCNC, said the RTP non-profit is supporting the efforts of North Carolina researchers as they study and experiment with SDN so that the state is positioned to take advantage of this emerging capability.

“SDN has the potential to change the way applications work in the Internet,” he said. “SDN allows users to program the network effectively making the network part of the cloud. This will enable entirely new types of applications and services.”

Changing Networking

According to U.S. Ignite Executive Director Glenn Ricart, SDN and the network virtualization it enables promises to change networking just as much as virtualization changed the data center.

U.S. Ignite was launched by the White House in 2012 to catalyze new applications in health care, education, transportation, and other public benefit areas that are becoming feasible due to SDN and other next-gen networking technologies. Ricart said one of the most active SDN research centers in the nation is RENCI at UNC Chapel Hill.

In 2011, RENCI and Duke University in partnership with IBM lead a new project to build a nationwide test bed for networking and networked cloud computing. The project was part of the National Science Foundation’s Global Environment for Network Innovation (GENI) initiative, which enables researchers to explore networks of the future.

The NSF awarded more than $2 million to the three-year ExoGENI project, led by Ilia Baldine, director of RENCI’s network research and infrastructure programs, and Jeff Chase, a Duke University computer science professor.

Chase said that SDN makes it possible to write a software program that controls how the network carries traffic in real time, instead of requiring humans to make the changes manually over days or weeks. For example, he explained, a user can request a new function through a website and get it done immediately (if it is safe to do so).

“At Duke,” added Chase, “we are using SDN to extend departmental networks into a common pool of servers (a “cloud”), and to make direct, safe, fast connections among selected systems on campus and national research resources like GENI.”

Ilia Baldine agreed and said SDN is becoming a critical mechanism in enabling new types of activities and applications in the network; from experimenting with novel networking technologies to more mainstream network operation tasks.

“It allows for more flexible and explicit control over network behavior compared to how networking is done today,” he explained. “Critically, it also allows for shared control over the network by multiple participants. For example, a network operator can give up control over a portion of a network to a customer, who might know better how to customize the behavior of the network to his needs.”

Changing business conditions today place significant demands on conventional network architectures that many believe just can’t handle it. SDN may just provide a new way to transform traditional network backbones into service-delivery platforms.