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Where do network fabric and SDN technologies intersect?

Networks can use a network fabric and SDN technologies together, and vendors' SDN architectures integrate them in a variety different ways.

Can you use network fabric with SDN technologies?

The short answer is yes -- networks can use both a network fabric and software-defined network (SDN) protocols. The question becomes how tightly integrated SDN technologies and network fabrics will be in the future. In one camp (which includes VMware and OpenFlow), the SDN architecture operates independently of the network switching fabric. SDN software and network fabric hardware are purchased from separate vendors, and SDN software abstracts and controls the physical Ethernet fabric. 

At the other end of the spectrum, SDN technologies are integrated with the physical network fabric. Suppliers offering this model include Cisco, Juniper with QFabric and SDN startups like Plexxi with its optical interconnect. Integrated SDN protocols make the network fabric more application-aware and facilitate Quality of Service for specific applications. 

In fact, many vendors are architecting their next-generation network products for the data center around both high-performance network fabrics and their SDN architectures. For example,

  • Cisco offers both its Unified Fabric and Open Network Environment (ONE) SDN architecture. 
  • Juniper offers its Q-Fabric switch and JUNOS software. 
  • Brocade has its VCS fabric and its SDN technologies (e.g., OpenFlow and Vyatta software-router). 
  • HP offers its Fabric Switch, SDN controller and Virtual Application Networks software.
  • Avaya has its VENA switch and Application Driven Networking (its SDN architecture). 

For most data center network applications the underlying physical network, working in conjunction with SDN protocols, will be critical to deliver a highly scalable, high-performance, low-latency network.

This was last published in March 2013

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The demand for SDN is being driven by major communications service providers and major enterprises, versus the network equipment manufacturers (NEMs). If you were a telecom service provider or other major consumer of network infrastructure equipment, SDN is in theory very attractive for various reasons, such as the ability to only wire your network once and only once and use centrally controlled, lower-cost switches from multiple vendors

SDN is still in “early adopter” stage but moving fast. Companies like Google and Amazon have proven out the concept. However, market requirements to support service providers and major enterprises are still evolving. What are the various use cases that need to be supported? What type of programmatic interfaces should be presented? What types of network applications need to be supported?