Software Defined Networking seeks to centralize control of a large network. The abstractions around computer networking evolved from the connecting nodes via switches, to applications that run on top with the OSI model, to the controllers that manage the network. The controller abstraction were relatively weak – this had been the domain of telcos and ISPs, and as the networks of software intensive companies like Google approached the size of telco networks, they moved to reinvent the controller stack. Traffic engineering and security which were done in disparate regions were attempted to be centralized in order to better achieve economies of scale. Google adopted openflow for this, developed by Nicira, which was soon after acquired by VMWare; Cisco internal discussions concluded that such a centralization wave would reduce Cisco revenues in half, so they spun out Insieme networks for SDN capabilities and quickly acquired it back. This has morphed into the APIC offering.
The centralization wave is a bit at odds with the security and resilience of networks because of their inherent distributed and heterogenous nature. Distributed systems provide availability, part of the security CIA triad, and for many systems availability trumps security. The centralized controllers would become attractive targets for compromise. This is despite the intention of SDN, as envisioned by Nicira founder M. Casado, to have security as its cornerstone as described here. Casado’s problem statement is interesting: “We don’t have a ubiquitous and horizontal security layer that provides both context and isolation. Where do we normally put security controls? We put it in one of two places. We might put it in the physical infrastructure, which is great because you have isolation. If I have ACLs [access control lists] or a firewall or an IDS [intrusion detection system], I put it in a separate box and I put it away from the applications so that the attack surface is pretty small and it’s totally isolated… you have isolation, but you have no context. .. Another place we put security is in the end host, an application or operating system. This suffers from the opposite problem. You have all the context that you need — applications, users, the data being accessed — but you have absolutely no isolation.” The centralization imperative comes from the need to isolate and minimize the trusted computing base.
In the short term, there may be some advantage to be gained by complexity reduction through centralized administration, but the recommendation of dumb switches that respond to a tightly controlled central brain, go against the tenets of compartmentalization of risk and if such networks are put into practice widely they can result in failures that are catastrophic instead of isolated.
What the goal should be is a distributed system which is also responsive.