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SDN: Uncovering Amazon's Secret Sauce

Software defined networking may help VMware and others tackle AWS; but how much of current SDN technology is hype vs. reality?

One of the advantages that Amazon's AWS has held is the ability to massively scale its elastic compute cloud (EC2) with nearly hands-free automation.  Amazon, of course, has always been very private about how it does this, but it seems clear that one of the keys has been their substantially customized version of the Xen hypervisor which (among other things) likely has implemented a form of software defined networking (SDN) for a pretty long while.  Capabilities such as AWS CloudFormation, security zones, Elastic Load Balancer, and others have clearly shown that much of what used to be network hardware is implemented in their software stack.  With VPC, AWS has been a leader in SDN, with strong network isolation (including overlapping IP ranges) that are obviously embedded in the hypervisor and supported by a custom hardware stack.  There's little argument that this has been a huge differentiator for AWS, not just enabling massive scale, but a steady stream of price cuts along the way.

With the advent of commercial mainstream SDN, solutions like VMware's NSX bring that same level of SDN automation to a commercially available hypervisor stack.  The downside of these solutions is the same as with Amazon--network performance of SDN has a long way to go to match the latency and throughput of dedicated hardware.  But for most cloud solutions, this is irrelevant.  The 15-20% performance hit  you take with SDN can be easily overwhelmed by scaling out, barely putting a dent in the economics of the cloud.  Moreover, it's very likely that in the next 3 years that disadvantage will disappear entirely as new hardware and techniques are put into practice to accelerate the SDN layer.

What does this mean?  The scale of investment Amazon has had to make to blaze this trail will be much less onerous to its followers (funny how that usually works!).  Enterprises will take a very, very long time to transition to technology such as this, due to the existing investments in a feature-rich network layer, SANs, etc.  Cloud providers, though, are less saddled by this.  Hell, Verizon is working on its fourth public cloud just in the last 3 years.

Will this erode AWS's lead in the public IaaS/PaaS market?  Well, it might over time, but I don't think Amazon is sweating just yet.  It will take a long while to someone to even approach the scaleand automation that AWS has built over the past five years.  But yes, over time, I think mainstream SDN has the potential to let the wild herd of public cloud providers start encroaching on AWS's almost lone occupancy of the upper right corner of Gartner's vaunted magic quadrant.

What do you think?  How much of current SDN technology is hype vs. reality?

More Stories By Benjamin Grubin

Benjamin Grubin is a 15-year veteran of the technology industry with experience in security, software engineering, marketing, consulting and management. He is the Director of Product Management & Marketing for Cloud Technology Partners, overseeing products that accelerate cloud development and migration. Mr. Grubin has worked with Fortune 100 companies to modernize their infrastructure and support next-generation management and security technologies. He is also a frequent presenter at conferences, seminars and panels on topics including cloud computing, IT service management, virtualization, and IT security.

Mr. Grubin holds an MBA from Harvard Business School as well as both a Master of Science in Computer Science and Bachelor of Science in Economics and Computer Science from Tufts University. Follow Ben on Twitter at @bgrubin.

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