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Software-Defined Networks Support Future-Proof Connectivity

Software-defined networking gives healthcare organizations the scalability and visibility needed support the adoption of advancing technology and increased workloads.

software-defined networks

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- Organizations are broadening their healthcare networks to reach out beyond the confines of the facility. In order to do this successfully there needs to be more visibility and control over the network, and many organizations are turning to software-defined networking gain more control.

SDN uses virtualization to remove the intelligent management software from network hardware. By doing so, SDN creates a centralized, more intelligent, and easier managed network architecture.  

The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) describes SDN as the “physical separation of the network control plane from the forwarding plane, and where a control plane controls several devices.”  

SDN allows network administrators 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.

Traditional network management solutions can dictate what data and packets have priority moving through the network, but SDN gives network administrators more control by providing a more dynamic set of functions. IT administrators can prioritize one set of data for a very short period of time, then several minutes later, prioritize another data set.

READ MORE: Considerations for Deploying Healthcare Wireless Networks

report published last year by Webtorials found that access to the public cloud and virtual desktops was one of the WAN services in highest demand.

The Webtorials report indicated that the two biggest factors driving interest in SDN were better utilization of network resources and the ability to perform traffic engineering with an end-to-end view of the network. While utilization of network resources can be experienced by implementing SDN in the LAN or the WAN, end-to-end network visibility can only be achieved by implementing SDN in the WAN.

In the healthcare industry specifically, SDN helps organization manage complex networks where prioritizing signals is vital. Emergency signals must have priority and SDN can help organizations mange emergency signals so there isn’t a potentially life-threatening drop or delay in communication.

SDNs provide IT departments with the ability to architect a custom management network, allowing them to prioritize different packets depending on a set of dynamic factors. IT administrators can prioritize traffic for specific mission-critical applications. This prevents low priority traffic, such as back office applications and personal applications, from gaining priority transmission through the network.

The network needs to be able to tell the difference between a clinician looking at a patient record during a routine checkup and a clinician looking at a patient record in the ICU or emergency room. The network needs to determine which action is more urgent.

READ MORE: Addressing Healthcare Network Connectivity Challenges

SDNs are also useful to healthcare organizations managing various deployments of connected devices.

The continued adoption of IoT devices drives the need for an elastic network. According to the IEEE, SDNs help better manage and monitor physical devices which assist organizations in collecting, transmitting, and processing data. Organizations can use that data to build better IoT applications. The more efficiently the network can process and communicate IoT data, the more valuable it is to building applications.  

SDN can also support telehealth programs by better managing connections and

SDNs are also useful for data migration and transferring large files such as medical images. IT administrators can control how much data is traveling through the network to ensure that large migrations don’t interfere with daily workflow.

Healthcare organizations migrating data to the cloud need to meet certain network requirements. Many organizations are faced with upgrading their legacy network infrastructure before migrating data to the cloud. Upgraded networks for data migration can benefit from SDN’s increased control.

While initially hesitant, the healthcare industry has seen the benefits of software defined networks for expanded management capabilities. Virtualizing parts of health IT infrastructure can give organizations better control over their hardware so they can utilize their resources more effectively. As more digital tools are added to the network, virtualized infrastructure will give organizations a more scalable environment to continue to adapt to technological advancements.

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