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SDN Supports Digital Health IT Network Infrastructure Growth

Software-defined networking uses virtualization to establish scalable health IT networks that are easier to manage and future-proof

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

Software-defined networking (SDN) has a place in health IT network infrastructure as enterprise virtualization continues to grow.

healthcare benefits from SDN

The goal of enterprise network virtualization is to take strain off hardware and make the network more visible to the administrator.  

SDN functions using abstraction, simplifying the the complexity of a computer system by arranging and suppressing the complex features below the operation level. Programmers operate the SDN through a simplified interface which automates the complex features allowing the programmer to focus on simpler functions.  

The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) describes software-defined networking as the “physical separation of the network control plane from the forwarding plane, and where a control plane controls several devices.” SDN allows network admins to manage the network through abstraction which gives apps and programs a simplified platform to operate on. ONF breaks down SDN architecture as:

  • Directly programmable: Network control is directly programmable because it is decoupled from forwarding functions.
  • Agile: Abstracting control from forwarding lets administrators dynamically adjust network-wide traffic flow to meet changing needs.
  • Centrally managed: Network intelligence is (logically) centralized in software-based SDN controllers that maintain a global view of the network, which appears to applications and policy engines as a single, logical switch.
  • Programmatically configured: SDN lets network managers configure, manage, secure, and optimize network resources very quickly via dynamic, automated SDN programs, which they can write themselves because the programs do not depend on proprietary software.
  • Open standards-based and vendor-neutral: When implemented through open standards, SDN simplifies network design and operation because instructions are provided by SDN controllers instead of multiple, vendor-specific devices and protocols.

SDN draws in organizations across all industries because of its flexibility and scalability. A report released by ZK Research earlier this year attributes evolving IT infrastructure technology as one of the major reasons why healthcare organizations have been slower to adopt SDN solutions.

“Historically, hospitals and other healthcare institutions have been slow to adopt new technology, as maintaining the status quo was viewed as safer than risking disruption from new technologies,” the report stated.

Healthcare organizations hesitate to adopt different technology because of the risks associated with HIPAA rules and regulations. In any cloud or virtual environment, organizations are required to analyze potential risks to healthcare data. When considering moving from a legacy network and implementing virtualization, organizations may find threats to healthcare data are different with virtualization and may require more time and money to fully assess.Too many changes all at once can sometimes make adopting new technology such as SDN and other variants of virtualization difficult to justify.

Healthcare organizations need to adopt and adapt to new IT infrastructure technology. The significance of the internet of things (IoT) is rising in the healthcare industry and patients are coming to expect accommodation of wearables and other health monitoring devices. Legacy health IT infrastructures cannot handle the rise in traffic from mobile devices and the amount of data being collected.

ZK Research states that,  “IT departments in healthcare organizations are under tremendous pressure to become the enablers of a digital strategy. The network will play a key role in the shift to digital healthcare, as most of the enabling technologies are network centric. It’s time for the networks in healthcare institutions to evolve away from legacy architectures to a software-defined network.”

Consolidation of design and natural scalability makes SDN more cost effective in the long run than traditional networks. SDNs can provide healthcare organizations with high-performing, low maintenance networks that can handle increased mobile traffic and scale to meet future demands. A software-defined network acts as a foundation for future network expansion.

Last year, ReportsnReports predicted the SDN and NFV (network function virtualization) market would grow at an 86 percent CAGR to 2020, from 2 billion in 2015 to over 45 billion in 2020.

“Rising need for mobility, surging cloud services, varying traffic patterns and increasing complexity of networks and data center consolidation and server virtualization are the major SDN market drivers,” ReportsnReports found.

ZK Research suggests healthcare organizations recognize how important a flexible healthcare network is to the IT infrastructure and encourages IT staff to “think outside the box” when it comes to network architecture.

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