Software-defined networking and Wi-Fi: Delivering wireless access to the edge (Reader Forum)
Software-defined networking, and SD-WAN in particular, is helping to redefine IT strategies for organizations across a number of industries. Companies with distributed operations have been traditionally dependent on resource-intensive, time-consuming and expensive processes to accommodate the networking needs of their business – and their customers. Traditional, rigid networks are becoming antiquated as organizations move beyond conventional boundaries into the cloud, transforming their operations to adopt software-defined technology. Organizations slow to respond may risk losing competitiveness in the drive towards greater agility and cost savings.
In tandem with these fundamental changes to networks, the edge has become very dynamic and far less structured as users, devices, applications, and infrastructure shift based on business needs. This continuously changing environment at the edge is very mobile, from smartphones and tablets to industrial IoT sensors and medical devices. This makes the extension of software-defined technologies to the wireless edge – to the SD-LAN – a natural fit.
Example use cases for converged software-defined networks are evident across a wide range of industries, each with their unique aspects. Consider the retail market where the network edge has become increasingly blurred. Retail branches are becoming highly dependent on mobile connectivity – not only to streamline operations but also to satisfy and evolve the customer experience. In-store devices such as handheld scanners for point of sale and inventory management are typically wireless. Layer on to this the expectation from customers for in-store Wi-Fi access and the challenges of maintaining a reliable and secure wireless network are evident.
The requirements for these two types of connectivity are very different from each other. Corporate access requires connectivity that is always available and highly secure with little variance in device types. Public access must be delivered connectivity to a wide variety and number of devices. Run these services concurrently over the same Wi-Fi infrastructure can be particularly challenge given competing requirements, however software-defined networks are well suited to adapt to meet the flexible, dynamic nature of retailer’s needs.
In the enterprise, the notion of a layered wireless network infrastructure takes on different significance. Most every organization has wireless and wired access service providing connectivity at the edge of the network, whether to desktops, laptops, mobile phones, VoIP phones, or many others. There can be a lot of variability and change in these networks. Common questions that surface include, “What systems are being accessed by which devices? Is sensitive financial data being viewed on a smartphone? Is HR information being shared in a conference room between a laptop and a wireless projector?” It can be very difficult for IT to segment and enforce policy across the entire network to support the specific needs of the business. One network may require dedicated access for corporate-owned devices, such as laptops or desktops, accessing cloud-based applications and data. Another may provide BYOD access for employees smartphones, providing requiring less stringent policy and providing largely Internet access. Other networks, such as for guests or IoT devices, add more complexity to the mix.
What IT requires – and what software-defined networking provides – is a solution that covers the entire spectrum of use cases to control the network from the data center and the cloud, all the way to the edge of the network, together with centralized management. Additionally, software-defined networks allow for differentiating between devices, routing traffic and uniquely handling compliance and security policy enforcement as required.
Let’s look further at IoT. The significant volume of devices coming onto the network in the next few years and the use cases they bring are almost infinite. Connectivity for these devices will be almost entirely wireless. Supporting a large number of devices, monitoring and managing their transient nature, and keeping everything secure is an incredible challenge. Many times, IoT devices are fairly simple as they are designed to be low in cost, low in power consumption, and lacking heavy security controls. The network must be able to lock these devices in with firewall and application policies that isolate them from the rest of the network and therefore limit their vulnerability to being hacked or accessed from the outside world. Again, software-defined networking technologies provide capabilities that can do just that: dynamically provision the network to support these devices, apply security policies at a very granular level, and create a network edge optimized to handle the unique requirements of the IoT.
Part of the value proposition of software-defined technology is that it supports and accelerates business agility by enabling IT to be much more adaptable, flexible and efficient. Wireless connectivity is fundamental to delivering these networks today. Extending the benefits of SD-WAN to the SD-LAN increases the value of these benefits and provides organizations with improved business and IT agility, better network performance, and lower infrastructure costs.