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The Emerging Importance Of Programmable Networks

The structure of computer networking has evolved rapidly over the last few years, morphing from the traditional model of client/server connections based around server farms and integrated hardware/software solutions, to today’s growing emphasis on dynamic infrastructures, virtualization and cloud computing.

Cloud concept

Managing "traditional" networks has become increasingly difficult as the amount of hardware in them has grown. And when you add the complexity of virtualization and the cloud, not to mention the huge surge in traffic brought about by the sheer number of modern connected devices, strict hands-on network management has become a nearly-impossible task.

Those are the driving forces behind the development of programmable networks.

SDN and PN

The first term that was used to describe this new method of management was software-defined networking, or SDN. It involved separating the software "running" a network from the data center hardware (like the routers and network switches) that actually control traffic flow. This allows routing tables to be centrally administered and independently programmed, to maximize efficient traffic flow across the entire data center infrastructure. This virtual control is exemplified by the OpenFlow protocol adopted by much of the industry, which provides the level of agility required in dynamic and cloud environments but not possible with traditional techniques.

Network switch and cables

Many use the term programmable networking, or PN, interchangeably with SDN. Ironically, however, the company which initially seemed most threatened by the emergence of SDN has not only jumped on board – but has expanded the definition of programmable networking even further.

When first deployed, SDN was often informally called the "Cisco killer" because it appeared to threaten the network switching business so important to Cisco’s business model. The company realized that today’s networking environment required new approaches, though, so it did more than simply offer OpenFlow to some of its users. Cisco has given its own definition to the term programmable networking, to include more advanced methods of centrally-administered and automated programming throughout network stacks

Among the company’s new SDN products are virtual network overlays with tools like LISP, so routers don’t have to continually assign and re-assign IPs, and VXLAN, making it easier to use existing software and hardware to expand programmable networks across a large cloud environment. Cisco has also put a lot of its eggs into an SDN software development kit, allowing the use of a universal API to program all of its switches and routers. The approach seems to be working, as the company’s programmable network client base is growing rapidly – as are Cisco’s profits.

The Benefits of Programmable Networking

Networking service

Whether it’s via OpenFlow SDN, or Cisco’s programmable networking model, there are enormous benefits to embracing the technology. Above all, PN provides more efficient allocation of resources, bandwidth and hardware, and the cost benefits that flow from that efficiency. But it also allows better real-time monitoring and management of network capacity and capabilities, quicker response to unexpected network demands, more flexibility in packet shaping for maximum network performance, and better support for increasingly rigorous security demands.

The largely-virtualized networks of today are vastly different than the ones we became accustomed to over the first decade of the 21st century. Whatever shape it takes, programmable networking will unquestionably play a key role in allowing us to effectively manage today’s networks, and tomorrow’s.

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