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How to realize the benefits of software-defined infrastructure

Software-based infrastructure and services can streamline management and application data. Before you add them to your data center, consider workload needs and existing hardware.

Admins can easily implement software-defined storage and networking, but there are also options that address broader infrastructure needs and simplify data center management.

Software-based services and infrastructure are beneficial to organizations that require constant changes to the data center and the applications that run within them. But these options aren't just plug-and-play; they require some research for admins to properly install them and actually accrue benefits of software-defined infrastructure.

Editor's note: This article is the second part in a series on software-based data center technology. Read part one here.

Software-defined services ease application management

Applications often require access to a variety of services that support their operation within enterprise infrastructure and networks. Common services include network security features, such as Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security caching, application acceleration features or some means of handling multiple sign-ons.

Traditionally, each service was implemented and managed as a separate, dedicated device and then deliberately configured to support selected application traffic. This made services time-consuming and prone to errors and security oversights.

This setup meant control of the service was inseparable from the traffic moving across the service. Just like software-defined networks seek to separate control and application data layers, software-defined services attempt to apply these advances to a wide range of application services through programming.

Traditional services -- such as load balancers -- are usually dedicated appliances installed on the network, but software-defined services use software in the form of virtual appliances installed on servers that are connected and controlled through a network.

Admins can provision and manage software-defined services from a central point, which enables them to oversee the health and availability of all services in the enterprise. Admins handle service management and provisioning through a common API and can invoke it as needed using automation and orchestration tools.

Admins have lots of options for software-defined services. Performance services might include caching, TCP optimization and application data compression. Mobility services can include VDI and endpoint management. Availability services bring global server load balancing and DNS to the data center.

Identity control services add single sign-on (SSO) and identity federation to applications. Security services cover antimalware, intrusion defense and spam filtering. The scope and number of services depend on the business's needs and the applications in service.

Software-defined services work to speed application deployment while centralizing all services into a common, managed setup. Each service can provide metrics and other instrumentation to build a picture of application and environment health for admins.

But software-defined services only make sense when there is a large suite of services to support a complex application environment: lots of applications using lots of services. The investment of time and resources needed to implement software-defined services may be excessive for organizations with fixed workloads. If end users rely on a few applications in the normal course of their work, it may make little sense to implement SSO capabilities.

Bring the benefits of software-defined infrastructure to the entire data center

Data center infrastructure is composed of countless servers, network devices and storage resources. Usually, this infrastructure would be configured and managed as individual devices -- often using varied and inconsistent management tools, which might only operate across vendor-specific devices.

Admins needed to provision resources for applications by hand -- a slow and tedious process that frequently led to oversights and errors. IT teams usually separated into server, storage and network silos of expertise, coordinating efforts to provision, optimize and troubleshoot any hardware.

Virtualization changed the way admins deployed and managed that technology. Abstracting functionality from the hardware makes it possible to systematically interact with servers, storage, networks and services through common software interfaces.

In 2019, almost every device and resource within a data center environment can be provisioned and managed through software, letting hand-managed infrastructure evolve into software-defined infrastructure. Software also facilitates fully programmatic activities, effectively blending automation and orchestration to quickly tackle complex tasks with greater consistency and accuracy than human teams.

With software-defined infrastructure, an admin can deliberately define an application's infrastructure and enable resources and services to be automatically provisioned to meet the workload's requirements. Successfully blending servers, storage and network technologies enables admins to support a wider range of tasks across the data center and decreases the need for IT knowledge silos.

One benefit of software-defined infrastructure's programmatic nature also enables greater troubleshooting and control of the environment. Recording a configuration's current state and then making a change is easy with software-based tools. It's also simple to remedy any problems or errors by reverting to the previous working configuration. Admins can also clone working configurations to quickly facilitate additional workload instances as needed.

Software-defined infrastructure generally requires a physical infrastructure that includes the familiar servers, storage, network devices, firmware and hypervisors; a virtualization layer to abstract the compute, storage and network elements; an array of software-defined capabilities, such as software-defined networking and software-defined storage; and a set of management services that can translate policies into workflows and reporting.

Another benefit of software-defined infrastructure lies in its scope. It takes considerable groundwork to implement software-defined infrastructure, and the investment is only justified in large, complex and dynamic data centers. SMBs with limited workloads and hardware resources may not receive much value from software-defined infrastructure implementation.

Highly integrated data center architectures, such as hyper-converged infrastructure, provide a suitably packaged software-defined infrastructure offering when it's not practical to assemble software-defined infrastructure from scratch.

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