3 reasons software-defined networking is streamlining DOD IT

SDN is tailor-made for the consolidation, automation and security needs of the department, Juniper’s Brian Roach writes.

At the 2014 Federal Forum in Washington, D.C., Terry Halvorsen, then-acting CIO (now CIO) of the Defense Department, addressed the growing importance of software-defined networking (SDN) in government. “We have to embrace the software-defined mission of where we have to go with the networks – that includes all the infrastructure,” Halvorsen said, adding that doing so would enable agencies to “respond to the changing threat environment faster.”  

Halvorsen’s strong endorsement of SDN is driven by its ability to enable a more scalable, flexible and efficient network. It does this by decoupling the system that makes decisions about where traffic is sent -- the control plane -- from the underlying systems that forward traffic to the selected destination -- the data plane -- in an open standards-based and vendor-neutral environment. SDN’s benefits include the ability to better plan for network growth, manage WANs from a central location, automate network management and maintenance, and implement bandwidth calendaring (the automated prioritization of traffic according to peak periods).

Interest is growing. A recent survey conducted by Juniper Networks, in conjunction with General Dynamics IT and market research firm MeriTalk, found that 37 percent of federal IT professionals are at least starting to implement SDN, while another 34 percent have plans for future implementation.

There are three big reasons behind the growing adoption:

(1) The drive to consolidation

As agencies continue to consolidate networks and operations across DOD, SDN can help in this effort. For example, it can be instrumental in developing DOD’s Joint Information Environment (JIE) framework, which is designed to consolidate DOD’s various networks into a single, massive entity. SDN can simplify the department’s network infrastructure and provide federal administrators with a centralized point of control to manage the entire consolidated network.

SDN can also be pivotal in data center consolidation. Features such as virtualization and automation can help agencies do more with less as a result of highly constrained budgets while reducing infrastructure. Further, SDN deployments within DOD can actually help the department add to the millions of dollars that have already been saved by the closures of data centers across the country.

(2) The need for greater automation

Manual network management is highly inefficient, which is why DOD has turned a laser-like focus on network automation – enabled as a component of SDN. Automation allows federal IT administrators to relinquish some of the responsibilities they have toward managing the network. This frees up administrators’ time to focus on other mission-critical items and allows the network to run more efficiently – exactly what DOD wants.

Decoupling the control plane from its underlying systems creates a more automated network that can make decisions without manual input. For instance, SDN may automatically reroute traffic based on current demands, including those related to application delivery. In fact, 59 percent of our survey respondents stated that SDN plays a key role in application rationalization planning, which involves the changing and consolidation of an agency’s application inventory to facilitate application delivery.

(3) The prospect of better security

Sixty-two percent of Juniper’s survey respondents felt that SDN delivered better than expected network security and, in fact, SDN and automation can help support DOD’s mission and goal of rapidly responding to changing threat environments. Federal IT professionals can receive real-time information regarding what is happening within the network, allowing them to quickly respond to potential threats.

It’s also worth noting that many federal IT professionals are managing multiple vendors and customers within their data centers, and data between these factions may need to be kept separate via tenancy bounding. SDN can enable tenancy bounding between DOD’s virtual communication tier and virtual LANs, virtual private networks and other methods used for tenancy management in the physical network, servers and applications. This helps ensure that cloud-based data remains secure and in the right hands.

SDN can also support Network Functions Virtualization, which can allow for greater cyber operations agility. Scale-out or just-in-time security functions can be added to operational flows with minimum network reconfiguration and human touch.

Finally, SDN analytics provide greater visibility and enable an automated decision process of network faults, configuration updates and other error-reducing functions, which can help you better understand the health of your network and applications. Analytics can also trigger events that allow SDN or IT administrators to course-correct potential issues as they occur.

SDN is a tailor-made strategy for the current state of federal IT. It is a key tenet of network modernization that provides the ability to manage networks more freely and easily than ever before. It offers the chance to control ever-expanding networks from afar while streamlining and automating operations. You can think of it as the silver bullet DOD’s been looking for in its quest for that more rationalized and simpler network.

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