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SDN Drives Enterprise Transformation

We have stepped into the next digital era. This is an exciting process, as digital enterprises use ‘bits’ to measure the operation and management of their core businesses, including decision support, marketing and analysis, customer relations, procurement, supply chain, and human resources. Every service generates ‘data’ that in turn is measured with still more data. Enterprises expect that the end effect of digitalization is business growth.

As enterprises digitally transform, CIOs must explore their own transformational processes and integrate ICT into every service they provide. How should network architecture ― the foundation of enterprise ICT ― be transformed? How can the network be a core pillar of digitalization rather than a bottleneck? The presence and gradual deployment of Software-Defined Networking (SDN) is the inevitable choice of network architecture transformation. Here, we explain how users building new network architectures that use a converged IT applications and ICT infrastructure will have the advantage of an accelerated digital transformation.

Embracing Digital Transformation

In 1992, Andrew S. Grove, then CEO of Intel Corporation, wrote in the Annual Report, “There are only two kinds of companies: the quick and the dead.”

In the same year, a professor from Stanford Graduate School of Business conducted an enterprise IQ test to measure the ability of companies to quickly process information to support high-value decisions. The subjects were ten PC companies with above average incomes and profits. By 1998, only five survived. Why did the other five not survive?

The PC industry grew quickly from 1992 to 1998. The average product lifecycle fell from 15.5 months to six months, through which these ten manufacturers faced many quick responses and fast decisions. Indeed, the efficiency of decision making directly determines the fate of a company.

Today, we live in an era of digital transformation and digitalized relationships. The interactions and transactions that people have in the physical world are also increasingly connected by digital technology.

Huawei’s philosophy is that the digital transformation of an enterprise is a process of using various technologies, including mobile, cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Big Data to connect to the physical and virtual worlds and create or transform the existing production and operation models. This process enables enterprises to make the right decisions more quickly to maintain their advantages.

Due to the increasing cost of land and labor plus stronger environmental protections, the traditional advantages of ‘low-cost’ industries ― manual labor, low cost of goods, and minimal operational costs ― have now dwindled and are losing their competitive edge. The long-term appreciation of the Chinese yuan has also diminished the cost advantage of export-oriented enterprises.

In contrast, new Internet companies are not burdened by feeling compelled to preserve or protect a legacy business. They use a progression of ever-innovative technologies, such as the open network itself, the explosion of endpoints from mobility, and now cloud computing and the IoT, to develop revolutionary business models that attract large numbers of users and capture market share. Legacy businesses have sometimes been unprepared or otherwise slow to respond. The ICT transformation is especially critical for traditional businesses.

CIOs understand the benefits of digitalization. First, it saves costs and improves efficiency. Second, a revolution in enterprise management is underway to enable and meet the need to use data and information from sources located both inside and outside of their organization. And third, for the benefit of future business, historical baselines and production and operations projections must be tracked visually.

The transformation process is liberating for CIOs because once the initial digitalization activity is complete, ICT architecture is no longer a mere business support system but is now tightly coupled with every possible business process. The CIOs that thrive are those who leverage the core competitive force that ICT infrastructures bring. IT departments with vision will invest heavily in service innovation.

Therefore, in the current ICT digital transformation process, rather than focusing exclusively on Return-On-Investment (ROI), enterprises are focused on boosting service efficiency, designing innovative products, and changing the relationship with end users. This pattern of thinking is completely different from the past and is evident in all aspects of ICT investment planning, management, and operation.

At the Core

ICT is the fundamental architecture for enterprise digitalization. Forrester, a global market research company, divides ICT into Information Technology (IT) and Business Technology (BT). ‘IT’ refers to the technologies, systems, and processes used to gain, serve, and keep customers. ‘BT’ is primarily related to software that is usually deployed in the cloud and accessed with mobile devices.

Some Internet companies, such as Uber, Tencent, and Meituan, owe their superior user experiences to powerful, agile ICT infrastructures and the highly efficient networks built onto them. Judging from the current progress of digital transformation, networks have become critical elements for enterprises to upgrade ICT infrastructure and connect users.

The ICT industry now offers technical solutions that replace the closed network architectures of old with new programmable platforms that are flexible and easily configured.

Traditional data center networks have large numbers of internal devices with complex features that require manual configuration. As traffic, security, and performance requirements vary from tenant to tenant, the overhead of reconfiguring hundreds or thousands of point-to-point connections can be overwhelming. The solution is the introduction of SDN, where all network appliances are addressable from a single Operations & Maintenance (O&M) console.

In the area of enterprise campus networks, the introduction of mobility has shattered the antiquated security strategies that assumed single, contiguous perimeters. The new reality is that each mobile device must be its own secure end point. The addition of large numbers of IoT terminals is compounding the complexities that operators face when managing a modern network.

Maximizing WAN bandwidth with dynamic scheduling tools is crucial to saving expenses and upgrading user experiences both inside and outside of each campus network.

Agile Network Adding More Value

SDN was invented to decouple closed network architectures by separating the control plane from the forwarding plane of each router and switching appliance. SDN solutions create layered networks able to meet rapidly changing business needs using agile infrastructures to accelerate developments in the system itself and the services that are offered both internally and externally.

The lower, data-forwarding plane of an SDN network is populated with commodity switching hardware. The upper plane allows centralized control for automating the configuration, policy profiles, and service support for the lower level switches.

SDN upgrades networks from static to dynamic by providing new opportunities for network development. The list of issues that SDN solves when compared with traditional networks includes slow response times to changes in demand, inability to virtualize the networks, and high O&M expenses and device costs.

Founded on the real needs of over 2,000 global enterprises since its 2013 rollout, Huawei’s agile network architecture is based on five customer-facing features (see figure below).

For example, Meituan, China’s largest eCommerce platform for providing local life services now attracts up to 130 million active buyers annually and over 1.6 million business partners. Its turnover in 2015 was approximately USD 15B. In 2013, Meituan rolled out a concurrent-access public cloud platform with 500 TB of daily network traffic.

Meituan adopted an SDN architecture and collaborated with Huawei to build a commercial cloud data center with automated provisioning of tenant networks and accelerated deployment of cloud services. This solution uses a Virtual Extensible Local-Area Network (VxLAN) to build multi-tenant networks that double the performance of servers. With End-to-End (E2E) visibility through the service paths, the SDN control console helps tenants monitor and optimize the O&M of their networks.

Meituan, in collaboration with Huawei, designed its SDN-based cloud data center based on the most open network architecture in the industry. Most importantly, this solution ensures an easy-to-access, high-quality experience for the users. Absent SDN, this advantage would not exist and would be difficult for Meituan to deliver an equal user experience at an equal cost with such high concurrent traffic.

Built on common SDN components, Huawei’s agile network solutions embody our unique understanding of and practice in SDN. We believe that the value of networks has transitioned from connections to services. The list of high-value services immediately includes policy-oriented network management and services processed at network edges to support network intelligence.

Core Attributes of Future Networks

The rapid growth of digital services is the core value of SDN. Agile networks have introduced both technological and service revolutions. The result is that deployment, O&M, and management have all become simpler for CIOs. Secure and controllable, ICT network infrastructures support the rapid growth of internal and external digital services.

The next logical step in the evolution of SDN technology is the deployment and operation of the service-oriented IT applications that are needed for the new generation Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) architectures. NaaS platforms will continue to improve upon SDN connectivity, capacity, diversity, and scenario adaptation metrics. NaaS systems will be highly scalable and able to adapt seamlessly with data centers, WANs, network campuses, branch offices, mobile Internet, and the IoT.

The NaaS architecture consists of the following core components:

  • Infrastructure Resources: Open-source network services are now deployed dynamically. Software-defined resource pools consist of switches, bandwidth, virtual machines, storage arrays, and other physical components that support network capabilities and the operational foundation for IT applications.
  • Virtual Networks and Edge Computing: Policy-based virtualized networks are built to realize cloud-based multi-tenant networks. User services are integrated with Big Data analytics, the result of which is that massive amounts of data are uploaded to the cloud for in-depth analyses and processing. Edge computing remains a necessity in industrial markets that require intelligent control and real-time handling scenarios that are only served with richer local intelligence based on a stable negative feedback system.
  • Network Controllers: Unified management of distributed infrastructure resources is performed according to demand. Functionality and resources based on IT application demand are automatically configured and managed to provide centralized control over selected network capabilities. Virtualized on-demand overlays for tenant-based networks with intelligent edge capabilities are matched to physical networks with maximum flexibility to meet users’ network application needs.
  • Network Analyzers: Although automated network deployments have been well received, the situation can be disastrous if the machine is not proactively adjusting and optimizing the network in the background. For this purpose, network analyzers feed Big Data systems to diagnose and catch small signal errors before they rise to become network faults. Large and small screen networks’ status visualization is an essential component to intelligent O&M.
  • Service-based Network Applications: Service operation and development are based on IT applications, users, and data. The fifth core attribute is to deploy IT applications that are built to support the entire growing populations of differentiated users and device types and to provide correctly configured networks for each unique user, device, or service type that exists now or will exist in the future.

This is the current direction of SDN’s evolution. Huawei will continue to drive the development of agile networks to extend SDN from data centers to more scenarios, such as WANs, campus networks, and branch offices. In general, we are committed to the progress required to better resolve the common and specialized points of friction in network operations that inhibit enterprise business growth.

The essential benefits of agile networks are to save costs, improve operational efficiency, reduce risks, and support quick innovation of digital services. Agile networks help enterprises reduce Capital Expenditures (CAPEX) for infrastructure that can be rented not owned and Operating Expenses (OPEX) by virtue of simplified O&M. The money saved is best invested in high-value applications targeted to support the evolution of our customers’ businesses and ultimately provide brand-new digital experiences for their users.

【Links】Five Challenges to Current Networks

1. Scaled and Heterogeneous Networks: Large campus networks provide multiple services over tens of thousands of heterogeneous network devices. The deployment of network global service policies remains a complex task.

2. Resource Collaboration and Security Optimization: Distributed resource scheduling within data centers is sometimes inefficient because heterogeneous edge processes do not interact with real-time, centralized O&M platforms. For campus networks, change is happening because of mobility, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and other multi-service threads. Static policies do not meet the requirements for mobile network security.

3. Dynamic Construction, Deployment, and Management of Networks: Managing branch networks accounts for 30 percent of network administration time. The addition, deletion, and adjustment of branch nodes, coupled with huge numbers of random online and offline device types requires installation, configuration, and upgrade support. A top issue for data centers is the dynamic allocation and optimization of network resources to fulfill the real-time demand for distributed IT resources.

4. Implementing a Focused ‘Applications and Users’ Strategy: In IT environments with increasing complexity, the growing number of user and device interactions requires careful and flexible control over network access to ensure that differentiated network services are uniformly available.

5. Intelligent Service and Experience Upgrades on Edge Network Devices: Most vertical IoT services require high real-time performance. Simultaneously, there are large numbers of external interactions between gateways and background applications, an environment that requires the edge network devices to be intelligent.

By Swift Liu

President, Enterprise Network Product Line, Huawei Technologies, Co., Ltd.