Which is the greater concern: east-west traffic or north-south? It’s a question that haunts people in two very different (?) categories: a) feudal lords in Game of Thrones (GOT), the hit HBO sword and sorcery epic, and b) cloud computing network architects.

In Westeros, the continent where most of the GOT action takes place, folks in the south are always talking about invading the north, where the castle of Winterfell sits. And folks in the north are always worried about fighting the folks in the farther north, the Wildlings, beyond a great wall made of ice and magic. Meanwhile, in Essos (to the east), Daenerys Targaryen has gathered her forces and will soon cross the Narrow Sea with her three dragons.

Daenerys, like a CPU in an oxygen-free environment, runs hot, but does not burn. Jon Snow, arguably just as hot, manages to stay cold, both in temperament and by spending most of his time around, well, snow. (It's not a show with a lot of subtle symbolism.) Both characters have plenty of fans, but the electronic components to which they are analogous don't need fans, as they are self-cooling.

The trade routes of cloud computing

In cloud computing, north-south traffic refers to packets travelling from the datacenter to the greater internet (north), and from the internet into the datacenter (south).

The winds of those trade routes have changed a lot in recent years. In the old days, most northbound traffic was just users requesting web pages with their browsers, and most southbound traffic was those web pages being delivered. But now, with the Internet of Things (IoT), that’s changing, as millions of devices gather data and upload it to the cloud.

With all that additional northbound traffic, the way datacenters deal with data has to change. Similarly, changes to north-south traffic patterns are affecting the way the GOT Northerners handle day-to-day life in the North. It used to be that the Wildlings stayed on the other side of the Wall, but now they, and the gentlemen of the Night’s Watch, have got to work together to fight the White Walkers.

Changing how datacenters work

In both cases, the long-term answer is going to come in the form of taking a closer look at east-west traffic. In GOT, we await the day when Jon Snow and Daenerys join forces, embodying the “Fire and Ice” in the title of the series of novels on which the show is based. In the cloud, east-west traffic refers to traffic within the datacenter itself (or within the nodes that effectively make up the datacenter). Considering the increased north-south traffic and the low latency required in an IOT-powered world, east-west traffic must become more efficient as well.

Fortunately, there’s software-defined networking (SDN), not to be confused with its brother in arms, network functions virtualization (NFV). SDN allows the hardware that runs routers to be updated from a central point, automatically and at scale. NFV virtualizes routing devices, effectively allowing packets to be routed by software (SDN). Together, SDN and NFV make the flow of packets within a datacenter exponentially faster. Which is to say, they facilitate east-west traffic, leading to more- agile services and reduced latency.

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Header image: Ericsson in Tuscany


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Michael Bennett Cohn
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Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn is a digital content expert with a wide range of experience in online publishing and advertising. He was head of digital product and revenue operations at Condé Nast, and he oversaw the digital ad campaign that launched the first Amazon Kindle. His journalism has been published by Newsweek, Mashable, and The Forward. He lives in Brooklyn.