The Future is Not as Hard as you Think: Software Defined Data Center Explained

April 19, 2017 Data Center, Trends

‘Software Defined’ is a term being used to describe how next generation devices and services work and interoperate in the data center.  It is the natural evolution of IT molded from the pressures associated with the cost of legacy architectures, manual operations, and the public cloud.  Software defined is also the foundation through which most new technologies are forged across the industry.  The shift to software touches every industry, vendor, and consumer of IT in one form or another either internally as subscribers or externally as clients of software defined solutions.  In this entry, I’ll define what it means to be software defined, why it matters, and what practical steps you can take to start your journey.

What Does It Mean to Be Software Defined?

When I consider the software defined data center, I describe it as having the following qualities:  high levels of automation, hardware abstraction, and resource pooling (eerily like the public cloud.)  The control plane for the service is managed in software and separate from the data plane.  These qualities can span across multiple service providers of compute, storage, network, and security services.  Software solutions should be composable and accessible programmatically.  For a data center to be software defined, it must be characterized based on the services it is delivering and not defined by the hardware delivering the service.  This is a fundamental shift in how we have traditionally viewed the data center.  When you abstract the physical and concentrate on the services, then the infrastructure ceases to be the limiting factor or the foundation through which you architect solutions.

Why Does It Matter?

Modern IT must adapt and move at the speeds of the modern business.  It must be able to deliver services faster with a high degree of accuracy, security, and across different mediums.  One way to accomplish this is through automation of each component in the data center.  This can be challenging with traditional architecture but is relatively simple with software-defined architecture.  For example, you have a simple load balanced web service which once it reaches 80% load needs to kick-off the instantiation of another server which is joined to a load balancer for additional client connectivity.  This is programmatically enabled with software-defined infrastructure.  You may be thinking that your load balancer can do this natively and some can start and add a new VM, but what if this call was nested in the actual web app itself with self-monitoring and self-provisioning?  What if the underlying storage was near capacity and you needed to online another node?   What if the network didn’t matter and that web app could be deployed and load-balanced from the public cloud using the same IP address?  These are just some questions which help illustrate the power of the software defined data center.

Where Do I Start?

The best place to start is with a plan.  Analyze your current application environment to understand where the potential for the greatest impact may live with the highest cost benefit; attack that first.  Below are a few strategies for each individual component in the data center:

Compute – The journey to the software defined data center begins with abstraction and pooling.  Many organizations are already doing this with their compute infrastructure leveraging hypervisors like VMware of Hyper-V.  High degrees of virtualization will allow you to control your compute platforms leveraging the VMware vSphere Automation SDK and vSphere API interface or Hyper-V WMI interface.

Storage – Expand your abstraction to storage through the use of hyperconverged in the data center and the edge.  These software-defined platforms combine both compute and storage into a simple and easily scalable solution which fosters operational simplicity and agility while delivering cost savings. Alternatively, you can look at providing profile based storage from your traditional storage leveraging vSphere vVols which move the control plane from your array into the hypervisor.

Network and Security – Leveraging platforms such as Cisco’s ACI and VMware’s NSX overlay technology allows the network to enter the realm of software defined.  These policy based frameworks enable organizations to simplify their network strategy in support of the applications running on them.  Each also enables a zero-trust model for network security isolating each individual service or application without the need of a data center firewall.

In the end, the journey to the software defined data center can be long and arduous but it does not have to be.  By enabling a solid foundation built from a roadmap, you can make decisions quickly and accurately which align with your overall objectives.