“Imagine,” reads a product page from IBM Systems, “an entire IT infrastructure controlled not by hands and hardware, but by software. One in which workloads like big data and analytics are serviced automatically by the most appropriate resource.”

This, explains IBM, is known as a software-defined environment – literally an environment in which hardware is functionally irrelevant; one in which everything is controlled through software switches.

It’s an odd concept if you really stop to think about it, one which is both old and new. On the one hand, virtualization – the core technology which forms the backbone of traditional cloud computing – is something that’s been around for decades. On the other, the capacity to virtualize networking hardware; the ability to divorce control and management from routers and access points, that’s something entirely new.

And it has the potential to completely change how the world does business.

“Previous limitations to software-defined data centers included physical constraints and a lack of application-layer focus,” says CohesiveFT CEO Patrick Kerpan. “Enterprises have been wary of sending apps to the cloud without the proper context for integration, governance, and security.”

“At its core,” he continues, “a software-defined data center frees the application layer from the hardware layer: use software to define the computing, storage, and networking needs for your business apps; let someone else own the hardware, the guards, the class, the gas, the batteries, the generators, and the costs of a physical data center.”

It should immediately be clear how valuable this is from a small business perspective. Before long, data centers won’t be something reserved solely for large enterprises with the land and capital to support an extensive physical infrastructure. Any organization with access to the necessary platform will be able to set up and run their own data center, leaving the physical management of their server to a host while they focus entirely on running their apps.

It is worth mentioning, of course, that – in spite of all the advances we’ve seen in recent years – we aren’t quite there yet. But we will be soon. Perhaps even in the next few years.

“Some may be skeptical about the many buzzwords and futuristic visions, seeing software-defined as the IT equivalent of flying cars,” writes Rich Miller of Data Center Knowledge, speaking of a recent Data Center World Conference panel in Orlando, Florida. “As the technologies mature and develop, panelists said, they will see increasing traction and companies will need to develop a roadmap for adoption.”

In other words, the software-defined data center isn’t quite here yet…but it’s only a matter of time before it is. And once it does arrive, it’s going to rock the very core of enterprise computing. Even the smallest organizations will have access to all the power of a full data center, at only a fraction of the cost.

This will, in turn, lead to the establishment of what InfoWorld’s Eric Knorr refers to as “an open-ended environment for innovation.” Knorr expects that when the technology finally clicks into place for this new computing paradigm, it’ll bring about a change nearly as impactful as that which was brought about by the Internet or the Cloud. Although he offers up a few predictions about changing standards, ultimately he states that no one can really predict where things will go from here.

“Soon, we’ll have the ability to experiment iteratively with all sorts of new data center architectures that cross public clouds and private infrastructure. Just as no one at ARPANET in the 1970s could anticipate YouTube, no one can predict what the ability to freely provision and configure abundant virtual resources will take us.”

Only one thing is certain amongst all this speculation. Wherever software-defined data centers will lead us, entrepreneurs will be right at the fore, using their newfound computing power and freedom to develop innovations beyond anything we’ve yet seen.

Image credit: Joydeep