Jan 08 2020

What Is Software-Defined Networking and How Can It Help Your Business?

The technology delivers centralized control and virtualization to healthcare organizations.

When Proliance Surgeons needed to keep pace with its growing infrastructure, the Seattle organization turned to software-defined networking (SDN).

The physician-owned practice, which numbers 2,400 employees across 100 clinics and ambulatory surgery centers, wanted to avoid network outages while a patient is receiving care from a technician.

With the help of Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure, the companywide network is now able to “run faster, with zero latency or hiccups,” says Proliance CIO Curt Kwak. It also allows Proliance’s IT staff to quickly and accurately identify any problems with an application in real time.

Such efficiencies support a greater mission, William Khampradith, enterprise security architect for Proliance, tells HealthTech.

“The goal is to make sure the user has a good experience and the applications are functioning the way they should in both performance as well as security,” he says.

Daniel McGinnis, senior director of data center marketing at Cisco Systems, called Proliance a “perfect example” of a distributed network using SDN — and a necessary solution for a fast-growing business. 

“Imagine 100 Proliance centers all acting, looking and working independently from one another and being managed individually,” McGinnis said. “It would be like having 100 different keys to get into each of those ambulatory centers, or 100 different managers managing each one of them with no single, standard operating procedure.”

What Is Software-Defined Networking?

SDN is networking technology that incorporates virtualization to separate network management from routers and switches. Virtualization provides centralized control of an organization’s networks and data center infrastructure.

A centralized dashboard allows network administrators to prioritize and provision applications and data packets on a healthcare organization’s network. The central controller where network intelligence resides is like the “brain of a network,” says Bob Laliberte, practice manager and senior analyst at research firm Enterprise Strategy Group.

“One of the key benefits for SDN is centralized control,” Laliberte says. “Essentially, this allows organizations to create policies, load them once into a centralized controller and then ensure they are enforced across a distributed environment.” This can eliminate errors, reduce manual tasks and save time.

SDN cuts out complexities for a health system by helping control how data moves around a network. As health systems acquire regional practices and clinics, the segmentation at the edge that SDN provides can quickly establish network connections.

The technology is also helpful for maintaining regulatory compliance with HIPAA.

“As you look at the distribution of the data, of the applications, the collection of it, you’re taking what previously had been very isolated and siloed groups of networks and turning them into a cohesive entity,” McGinnis said. “HIPAA and other regulatory issues just could not be achieved without that centralized way of operating a network.”

How SDN Brings Automation to Healthcare Organizations

Another SDN capability: enabling a dynamic configuration that can boost network performance and monitoring.

“By continuously monitoring the network environment, organizations can establish thresholds or policies for performance and priority based on the application or workload,” Laliberte says. “In systems with closed loop monitoring and automation, in the event of a link going down, the network will automatically adjust to ensure priority applications continue to meet desired service-level agreements, while lower priority workloads like guest Wi-Fi operate in a degraded state until full bandwidth is restored.”

It’s no surprise, then, that artificial intelligence and machine learning will increasingly play a role in this process, Laliberte says, as SDN has advanced from a command line interface setup to a more cohesive structure. 

“It will also be significant for security functions as well by identifying anomalous activity and traffic spikes that exceed normal operating parameters,” Laliberte says.

A central control panel pushes security policies down to hundreds of network nodes. Cisco’s McGinnis compared the process of automating a corporate network with how people centrally automate timers for lights in their home rather than controlling each one separately.

“So when this motion detector goes off, I can now trigger 10 timers or 10 switches to turn on,” McGinnis said. “There’s a lot more intelligence sharing and federation between these silos or buckets of intelligence.”

Implementing Software-Defined Networking in Healthcare

As the use of SDN evolves, healthcare organizations must decide how and where to deploy the technology. CDW’s Data Center Services can help with all aspects of an SDN implementation.

Still, Laliberte says, “it gets a little bit scary; this is a cultural shift as well as a technology shift because a lot of this SDN is enabling more orchestration. But what’s going to be really critical — and this is going to be on an individual basis, by organization — is their comfort level with the automation.”

Focusing on the benefits can help enable the shift. A faster network, after all, helps doctors download MRI scans and other patient records and collect and analyze data from a growing pool of Internet of Medical Things devices.

And the centralized control that SDN delivers leads to greater efficiency.

“SDN has really evolved to become a critical enabler in a larger operating model,” McGinnis says, adding that the technology “is an enabler of the future of networking.”

Its scalability is helpful for expanding businesses such as Proliance, giving users not only the tools to handle today’s IT needs but room to tackle future ones.

“We don’t have to worry about our infrastructure for the next five years, and in tech time, that is an incredibly long time,” Kwak says. “We’re modernized, and we’re exactly where we need to be.”

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