Is Software-Defined Networking Right for Your IT Career?

Wireless router with blue lights

There's a black box that hangs on my wall. For many years, this box was filled with magic. It was a god, of sorts; when it was happy, I could connect to the interwebs, and was also happy. I could tell it was happy because its little status light was blue. Every once in a while, however, it grew angry, and its indicator light turned a displeased red.


I like the blue light.


It's very elegant and user-friendly, that box. Fire and forget. This works for me, because I just want an internet connection. I don't need it to be the fastest connection, or the most reliable connection. I don't need it to do cartwheels or handstands. I just need my YouTube.


There are people, however — and, more especially, businesses — that could benefit from having more complexity. A lot of the little switches and levers that I'm OK to leave automated can actually be improved greatly by a conscious touch, under the right circumstances. In fact, this is the entire concept behind Software-Defined Networking, or SDN. SDN is a method of pulling apart a router in order to give it highly-specific instructions developed especially for a unique network. To do this, they couldn't think of a better ways than to actually pull apart a router.


More specifically, the black box on my wall holds within it two "planes," the control plane and the forwarding plane. I like to think of this as a railway system. The control plane decides where the rails go and what schedule the trains run by, while the forwarding plane is the trains themselves. The control plane maps out your network, and the forwarding plane uses that information to figure out how to get its packets from one point to the next.


In an SDN system, these two planes have been separated. This separation allows an administrator to get into the control plane and really give it blow-by-blow instructions. It also means that the control plane is not limited to one device. Control for the entire system is centralized, which theoretically makes the system much more responsive. As a result, businesses (especially cloud-computing businesses) are taking up the SDN banner, preferring the effectiveness and agility of SDN over the simplicity of a traditional setup.


Of course, building and maintaining such a setup is very different from plugging in some routers — let's talk about how YOU can benefit. Certifications are a little shaky still, but they're there. For an exhaustive list, check out our February article by Ed Tittel. Right now, though, I'd just like to touch on a couple of the best certifications, followed by a few of the solutions you'll want to get familiar with.


For networking certs we always look to Cisco, and SDN is no exception. If you've already got a CCNP or CCIE, you can augment that with Cisco's Network Programmability Engineer Specialist. This one tests "the ability of network engineers to deploy network applications in the programmable environment." Similar to this is the Network Programmability Design Specialist. Alternately, you can go for the NP Developer Specialist if you're looking for a significantly different flavor.


Beyond Cisco, the big player is the Open Networking Foundation, which is also where our biggest SDN solution, OpenFlow, comes from. Several other parties offer SDN controllers as well. Brocade offers its SDN controller and a certification to go with it, which makes Brocade a solid choice for one just entering the water. There are also a number of reliable open-source controllers, including Floodlight.


The point is, this is a solid field of study. If you're a networking specialist who's getting bored of the "same ol, same ol," then this might be a good next step for you.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
David Telford

David Telford is a short-attention-span renaissance man and university student. His current project is the card game MatchTags, which you can find on Facebook and Kickstarter.