Forget networking, the data center of the future is software defined too

Software defined networking made a big splash last week at the Interop show in Las Vegas with a variety of vendors pitching their vision of how abstracting out networking from the physical hardware will change the overall way IT services are implemented. But the most disruptive element of the entire software defined networking trend is that it enables the next era of IT, the software defined data center, a concept Steve Herrod the CTO of VMware introduced at the show.
The rise of the software defined data center will allow new opportunities for entrepreneurs seeking to build specialty clouds such as Calligo’s offshore cloud that launched yesterday, help provide better security and flexibility to both public and private cloud companies and will also continue the disruption for established hardware and software vendors.

The coming era of the software defined data center

In the software-defined data center, the hardware fades in importance and software will arise that allows developers and business teams to write programs that will run on top of some type of data center operating system that will control the network, storage and compute together.
“The big term goal is changing the architecture of the data center and if we don’t expand the pictures, we get bogged down with nerdy problems as we try to scale,” says Dante Malagrinò, the CEO of Embrane, which builds software for programmable network services.
So when Herrod took the stage at Interop to explain the concept (but didn’t launch VMware’s products) it’s a sure bet that VMware has its eye on the operating system role, helping orchestrate the interactions from the hypervisor all the way up the stack.
The key questions associated with the development of a software defined data center are who will control the orchestration layers, how the pieces of the networking, compute and storage get wrapped in with the data center, and what vendors (and in what package) will ultimately sell customers their IT.
For companies that want to direct their data center operations with the click of a mouse a software defined data center is good news, but for those making specialized hardware it’s a bit more uncertain. Herrod believes they would be at a disadvantage, but there are still areas such as IO and power consumption where virtualization on top of commodity gear isn’t the answer. Of course, a company selling virtualization may not want to focus on that.

The networking element and putting it into practice

Herrod said that software defined networks helped solve “the last bastion of pain” preventing the data center from evolving in this manner. As companies virtualized their servers and storage, the networking became incredibly complicated to manage. Products like Cisco’s Unified Compute Systems were trying to help with this, but they were expensive and proprietary. And they don’’t work at web or cloudscale.
But researchers and a raft of startups are hoping to solve the networking problem by introducing both an abstraction layer for the network as well as programmability. Some such as BigSwitch are using OpenFlow, a new protocol that helps separate the routing of packets from the intelligence that determines where to send them, but others such as Nicira are using proprietary controllers to direct the flows of traffic across the network. VMware will play with multiple vendors and even offers a semi-virtualized networking architecture called VXLAN.
Nicira is the star so far in the software-defined networking movement, and a new cloud in the Channel Islands shows why. Calligo, a startup that launched Wednesday as an offshore cloud, is using Nicira as the controller tying its software defined entwork together. Calligo, with an Infrastructure, platform and software as a service offering, is also the first example of a software defined data center.
The servers and networking gear are all commodity, and the value is mostly in the software provided by VMware and Nicira (plus some storage gear from Solidfire). It’s offering all three layers of the cloud stack, as well as a variety of other services, built on the same underlying platform.
In many ways it’s the first iteration of the software defined data center, because as long as the software commands are directing where customers’ traffic goes, and the right contracts are in place at the data centers where Calligo’s servers live, the physical infrastructure is a black box the end customer never has to care about. And beyond making sure things are running in the way Calligo needs it to, it doesn’t even have to care about the data center.
Calligo is a glimpse into the possibilities of the software-defined data center and software defined networking. Keep an eye on it.

Question of the week

Does Openstack have what it takes to tackle VMware in the software-defined data center?