The agility and efficiency that organisations have already derived from virtualisation is just the beginning, says Martin Walshaw, senior engineer at F5 Networks.

Enterprises and cloud service providers have made huge strides in virtualising core sections of their data centres. As a result, they are now benefiting from new infrastructural efficiencies gained specifically from software-enabling their server compute and storage hardware.

But the journey doesn’t end there: organisations are two thirds of the way through transforming the data centre: the network is the third and final data centre pillar that needs to be virtualised, and not before time.

Manually configuring the network will soon be a thing of the past as Software Define Networking (SDN) gives data centre administrators the tools they need to orchestrate their networking operations and dovetail them with the already abstracted compute and storage elements.

This exciting move is set to be a game-changer, paving the way for software-defined application services (SDAS), which will bring a new level of network automation, responsiveness and resource flexibility. It will also bring greater agility to the data centre as a whole.

Uniting the data centre

SDN is a means of abstracting the physical network and defining it through a common software layer. The same orchestration software can control the compute and storage elements, giving organisations unparalleled control over their whole data centre stack.

In essence, SDN brings the sort of agility, flexibility and scalability benefits that virtualisation brought to server compute and storage. In addition, software-enabling the network creates a new wave of benefits, such as network-layer agility, flexibility and availability, as well as greater control and automation for application layer 4-7 services.

As a result, consolidating the entire data centre under a common software layer will lead to powerful orchestration. It gives enterprises the ability to deliver fast, reliable and secure applications to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Beyond provisioning

SDAS extend the vision beyond provisioning applications through SDN, and hold the promise of orchestrating the layer 4-7 services that sit on top of the networking layer: such as security, authentication and performance. The ability to apply individual policies to each application means user experience can be transformed.

By doing this, it is possible to orchestrate elements such as the firewall, the DDoS mitigation service, the proxy and authentications servers, traffic management, mobility, identity and acceleration technologies that are critical to all network architectures.

SDAS also provide the means to dynamically tune app performance in relation to the end user’s device. Using SDAS technology, the network automatically takes into account the connection speed and responds accordingly, feeding data-heavy content only if appropriate.

Thirdly, when applied to security, SDN and SDAS provide greater risk mitigation by dynamically configuring network switches and firewalls, based on the user’s context: their device, location, security policies, and so forth.

Finally, SDAS bring a policy-led approach to DDoS mitigation that can dynamically move the compute-intensive workload to the cloud quickly and as required, using the processing firepower that highly-scalable cloud services offer on demand.

SDN next steps

Now is the time for enterprises to prepare for full data centre virtualisation and orchestration: from the ground level up. Enterprises must prepare for the massive changes that are coming: significant data growth; massive expansion in connected wearable computers; and changing security requirements that need greater data centre agility.

DevOps are already emerging in some organisations, ready to develop and program the data centre infrastructure to meet the needs of the organisation.

But there is still work to do for data centre equipment and software suppliers. The industry needs to make SDN a lot more plug and play; and provide solution ‘programmability’. This is starting to happen.

The era of the fully-virtualised data centre is dawning. The operational cost savings, agility and efficiency that organisations have already derived from virtualisation is just the beginning.

Once data centres have implemented SDN and SDAS alongside their virtualised server and storage infrastructures, they will have the power to react faster to changes in technology, and deliver responsive change.