What Is the Software Defined Data Center and Why Is It Important?

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In every emerging technology market, hype seems to wax and wane. One day a new technology is red hot, the next day it’s old hat. Sometimes the hype tends to pan out and concepts such as “e-commerce” become a normal way to shop. Other times the hype doesn’t meet expectations, and consumers don’t buy into paying for e-commerce using Beenz or Flooz. Apparently, Whoopi Goldberg and a slew of big name VCs ended up making a bad bet on the e-currency market in the late 1990s. Whoopi was paid in cash and shares of Flooz. At least, she wasn’t paid in Flooz alone! When investing, some bets are great and others are awful, but often, one only knows the awful ones in retrospect.

What Does “Software Defined” Mean?

In the infrastructure space, there is a growing trend of companies calling themselves “software defined (x).” Often, it’s a vendor that is re-positioning a decades-old product. On occasion, though, it’s smart, nimble startups and wise incumbents seeing a new way of delivering infrastructure. Either way, the term “software defined” is with us to stay, and there is real meaning and value behind it if you look past the hype.

There are three software defined terms that seem to be bandied around quite often: software defined networking, software defined storage, and the software defined data center. I suspect new terms will soon follow, like software defined security and software defined management. What all these “software-defined” concepts really boil down to is: Virtualization of the underlying component and accessibility through some documented API to provision, operate and manage the low-level component.

This trend started once Amazon Web Services came onto the scene and convinced the world that the data center could be abstracted into much smaller units and could be treated as disposable pieces of technology, which in turn could be priced as a utility. Vendors watched Amazon closely and saw how this could apply to the data center of the future.

Since compute was already virtualized by VMware and Xen, projects such as Eucalyptus were launched with the intention to be a “cloud controller” that would manage the virtualized servers and provision virtual machines (VMs). Virtualized storage (a.k.a. software defined storage) was a core part of the offering and projects like OpenStack Swift and Ceph showed the world that storage could be virtualized and accessed programmatically. Today, software defined networking is the new hotness and companies like Midokura, VMware/Nicira, Big Switch and Plexxi are changing the way networks are designed and automated.

The Software Defined Data Center

The software defined data center encompasses all the concepts of software defined networking, software defined storage, cloud computing, automation, management and security. Every low-level infrastructure component in a data center can be provisioned, operated, and managed through an API. Not only are there tenant-facing APIs, but operator-facing APIs which help the operator automate tasks which were previously manual.

An infrastructure superhero might think, “With great accessibility comes great power.” The data center of the future will be the software defined data center where every component can be accessed and manipulated through an API. The proliferation of APIs will change the way people work. Programmers who have never formatted a hard drive will now be able to provision terabytes of data. A web application developer will be able to set up complex load balancing rules without ever logging into a router. IT organizations will start automating the most mundane tasks. Eventually, beautiful applications will be created that mimic the organization’s process and workflow and will automate infrastructure management.

IT Organizations Will Respond and Adapt Accordingly

Of course, this means the IT organization will have to adapt. The new base level of knowledge in IT will eventually include some sort of programming knowledge. Scripted languages like Ruby and Python will soar even higher in popularity. The network administrators will become programmers. The system administrators will become programmers. During this time, DevOps (development + operations) will make serious inroads in the enterprise and silos will be refactored, restructured or flat-out broken down.

Configuration management tools like Chef and Puppet will be the glue for the software defined data center. If done properly, the costs around delivering IT services will be lowered. “Ghosts in the system” will watch all the components (compute, storage, networking, security, etc.) and adapt to changes in real-time to increase utilization, performance, security and quality of service. Monitoring and analytics will be key to realizing this software defined future.

Big Changes in Markets Happen With Very Simple Beginnings

All this amazing innovation comes from two very simple concepts — virtualizing the underlying components and making it accessible through an API.

The IT world might look at the software defined data center and say this is nothing new. We’ve been doing this since the 80s. I disagree. What’s changed is our universal thinking about accessibility. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have blinked if a networking product came out without an API. Today, an API is part of what we consider a 1.0 release. This thinking is pervasive throughout the data center today with every component. It’s Web 2.0 thinking that shaped cloud computing and now cloud computing is bleeding into enterprise thinking. We’re no longer constrained by the need to have deep specialized knowledge in the low-level components to get basic access to this technology.

With well documented APIs, we have now turned the entire data center into many instruments that can be played by the IT staff (musicians). I imagine the software defined data center to be a Fantasia-like world where Mickey is the IT staff and the brooms are networking, storage, compute and security. The magic is in the coordination, cadence and rhythm of how all the pieces work together. Amazing symphonies of IT will occur in the near future and this is the reason the software defined data center is not a trend to overlook. Maybe Whoopi should take a look at this market instead.

Ben Cherian is a serial entrepreneur who loves playing in the intersection of business and technology. He’s currently the Chief Strategy Officer at Midokura, a network virtualization company. Prior to Midokura, he was the GM of Emerging Technologies at DreamHost, where he ran the cloud business unit. Prior to that, Ben ran a cloud-focused managed services company.


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