Unified Communications is becoming one of the early test beds for Software Defined Networking (SDN) concepts and technologies. It turns out that the SDN model of higher-level controllers driving lower-level infrastructure elements fits nicely with the UC model, where a call controller understands the bandwidth and QoS needs of real-time traffic. The combination of SDN and UC offers the ability to translate real-time traffic requirements into configurations that optimize the network's treatment of voice, video, and any other traffic that may need real-time handling.
Several UC and SDN vendors have announced interoperability between SDN controllers and UC call controllers, with Microsoft taking the lead by tying Lync/Skype for Business servers with SDN controllers from HP and Extreme Networks, as well as an integration with WiFi controllers from Aruba. Furthermore, network management and troubleshooting vendors like Nectar have also built products that accept data through the SDN API that can be used to drive management decisions.
There aren't many companies that actually play in both the SDN and the UC spaces, but one of them is NEC, which provides both the Univerge UC platform, and the ProgrammableFlow SDN controller, and NEC has been working on products and capabilities that leverage this synergy. I had a chance to talk with Sam Safa, Manager, Product Management at NEC Corporation of America, who described a set of functions that extends beyond just better QoS marking. NEC's UC-SDN integration can drive efficiencies in provisioning, emergency communications, and disaster recovery/resiliency, while also providing better traffic analysis that can eventually play into Big Data-driven insights, he said.
When it comes to provisioning, the UC-SDN integration allows for more efficient configuration of the underlying infrastructure, Safa explained. Instead of configuring and mapping QoS settings manually across devices, network managers can use the information generated by the API to provide information not just on QoS settings but on dynamically changing requirements. That means more efficient use of resources, since bandwidth doesn't have to be dedicated full-time for high-demand situations that may only occur sporadically; it can be re-allocated as needed.
The ability to dynamically allocate resources goes beyond just providing optimal service to business-critical real-time applications, however. It can be applied to life-critical emergency communications scenarios as well. The UC system can immediately locate where a 911 call came from, based on the SDN system's ability to tell it which network switch port the dialing phone connects to. Also, emergency calls or broadcasts can be set with the highest priority to assure they get priority over all other traffic, Sam Safa said. And because the UC system is tied to the SDN controller, it can ensure that this traffic actually receives the highest-priority treatment, instead of simply requesting such treatment from the network, as would be the case with traditional QoS marking.
Similarly, the greater control over dynamic resource allocation can help in Disaster Recovery (DR)/failover situations. With SDN integration, if a UC server associated with a mirrored datacenter goes off line, the redundant UC server would know that and could dynamically push bandwidth reallocation policies to the network infrastructure to handle the downtime, rather than this reallocation having to be done manually. Once the UC server was brought back up, the policies would revert to the normal configuration.
Finally, tying the UC system directly to the SDN infrastructure lets the enterprise collect highly granular data on individual users' consumption of network resources, tied to the UC applications that they use. Sam Safa told me that this trove of data could be mined in any number of ways via Big Data analysis, to come up with ways of better understanding how users are using the network, and how to optimize their performance.
Regardless of whether the full-blown SDN vision materializes in enterprise networks over the near term, UC-SDN integration is starting to look like something of a no-brainer, a capability that clearly makes sense for enterprises to employ. NEC's well positioned to capitalize on these advances.