SDN is evolutionary, not revolutionary

The faster technology changes, the more we find ways to utilize it, and it’s not slowing down any time soon. Last year, NTT Japan successfully tested a fiber optic cable that pushes 14 trillion bits per second down a single strand of fiber, raising the bar very high in terms of speed and agility.

Older network architectures weren’t built to meet the requirements of modern enterprises. There’s a need for fresh architecture that can support evolving traffic patterns and key computing trends such as big data, mobility, cloud computing and the consumerization of IT.

Enter software defined networking (SDN), where data control is ‘decoupled’ from the physical infrastructure and directly programmable, enabling administrators to support a network fabric across equipment from multiple vendors. This leads to optimal routing and improvements in application performance, which ultimately provides a better experience for users.

Tech for tech’s sake?

Some consider SDN to be the next shiny buzzword with no real merit, the benefits are seen as purely conceptual at this stage, while others think it’s the final frontier for competitive IT .

“Depending on whom you talk to — it could solve world hunger or it’s a specific niche protocol,” said Gartner analyst David Cappuccio at this year’s Gartner Infrastructure, Operations & Data Center Summit in May.

But as organizations plan to roll out new virtualized applications and face repeated disruptive IT trends, they may need to consider how to transition to SDN and the impact it will have on the way they build their networks if they want to remain competitive.

“SDN is not just technology for technology’s sake. It’s the fact that businesses are being differentiated by their ability to deliver services quickly over congested services,” says Peter Carr, analyst and founder of Peter Carr Advisory.

“If you can get a leg up over your competition by using smart technology and embedding that into the architecture of your data center, do you think your boss is going to be happy with that? I would say so.”

It’s not just about realizing the benefits but also the necessity for investing in technologies that allow the configuration of networks remotely using software, says Carr.

“On the surface, SDN is simply a means of reinvigorating an old, tired network, helping CIOs and network admins to leverage more network channels while optimizing the route of data from one point to another,” says Carr.

“However, the flow-on effects of a more agile and scalable network include reduced complexity, greater flexibility and faster resource deployment, improving workflow with better availability and reliability of network environments for all devices and uses.”

Shifting the perspective

SDN can change the way we look at projects, shifting from a technology point of view to a workflow point of view.

“The most difficult part of IT infrastructures to manage or change is the network, with probably the most highly paid people in the data center doing so. When you need better data center performance, they have optimized it at a device-by-device level, and that’s very expensive, very time consuming and not very adaptive,” said Cappuccio.

“What if we created an environment we managed with software instead? Then we can manage it based on a common set of principles… suddenly the environment seems a lot more flexible, potentially a lot more scalable and a lot more adaptive.”

Up until now, organizations haven’t had to worry about optimizing data routes because traffic hasn’t particularly been a problem, but with all the changes in high speed networks, digital disruption, and mobile applications, the roads are getting choked.

“Every organization has a limited amount of transport capacity on their networks, whether they’re on the public Internet or whether they have their own private networks. So the dark fiber is just like a road and like the roads, they’re all getting very congested,” says Carr.

SDN could therefore be useful for organizations whose networks have lots of branches and that deal with various geographies. Carr says for a remote country like Australia in particular, SDN presents great opportunities to optimize network reach.

When it comes to determining the need for SDN, Carr says it depends on what your organization wants to optimize for (eg. scale, cost, quality) and what the data center is there to service.

“If you’re in a retail business or a consumer business, this has to be a part of your architectural consideration and if it’s not then you’re missing out on a core piece.

“And if you have an organization with a big application development environment and you need to optimize for scale and quality, again it’s a really critical place and it’s not going to go away.”

Nathan McGregor, managing director of Juniper Networks for Australia and New Zealand, says a key issue for enterprises is the need to scale up services after transitioning to the cloud, with legacy systems and applications that weren’t written with the cloud in mind.

“Having to manage those applications within the cloud and virtual infrastructures is quite a different task to what was traditionally done in data center infrastructure,” says McGregor.

“Companies need maximum flexibility with networking and how they program to it, both physical and virtual, and this is where we’re seeing customers apply their own program codes like Python, with software partners such as Puppet and Chef and similar functionalities to really customize that network for maximum flexibility.”

Service providers too will come to rely on SDN to deal with high data loads on mobile and video networks now putting strain on the finite resources of the network operator, says McGregor. Network functions visualization (NFV), the service provider equivalent of SDN, is critical to being able to turn on products and services for an enterprise customer on demand.

“Traditionally a customer will decide to buy a product or service, place an order, the provider would go and buy the piece of physical equipment and store it somewhere in the network, provision it, and put that person’s IP address on it, all of which would normally take up to 90 days,” says McGregor.

“NFV enables them to simply turn on a piece of software to deliver what used to be a physical delivery mechanism, meaning those 90 days can literally be cut down to 90 seconds.”

Changing skillsets

A key issue for SDN adoption is the drastic impact it will have on the people working in the data center, such as storage and network management experts who may not be big on strategic architectural considerations.

“It is organizationally disruptive, it changes how to do things, who is responsible and in most cases, it changes the skillsets,” said Cappuccio.

Internal changes should not be about reducing headcount necessarily, but rather upskilling existing network staff to help plan for the change and how they can be involved.

“The choice is either let those workers get aggravated with the changes and find a way around the problem, or get them involved early to find out the best way to do it, which Gartner recommends,” added Cappuccio.

McGregor suggests training staff into more of a coding model, giving them the ability to take advantage of some of the current open standards within SDN and thus program specific to that enterprise’s needs. “We don’t see a lot of reduction in headcount, just a shift in skillsets that’s going to transform business and frankly this IT lead will be a big shift,” he says.

“The businesses that focus on upskilling of labor will be dominant in this transformation globally. We haven’t quite seen a big shift of change in education yet, it’s happening slowly but we definitely see that coming.”

McGregor also encourages businesses bringing together thought leaders and engaging them in architectural workshops to look forward 5-10 years into the future of networking. Many companies are now testing SDN and storage, in small beta environments and production environments, though not across the board.

“They’re training their staff, they’re testing out different vendor offerings, getting comfortable with it,” says Cappuccio. “It’s an evolutionary thing, not a revolutionary thing.”

Driving IT-as-a-Service

In what’s being coined by some as ‘the age of software-defined IT’, CIOs face new challenges and opportunities as their roles evolve rapidly alongside technology.

With the advancement of the intelligent data center, new infrastructure and operational models, CIOs can potentially harness SDN to lead business transformation, driven by digitalization across the enterprise.

As customer service becomes an integral part of the CIO’s role, so too does the importance of a seamless user experience. SDN is the next logical step for CIOs hoping to continually optimize customer interaction following the explosion of the application landscape.

“With expanded IT capabilities, CIOs can better take on the role of internal service providers, acting as the human interface for the management of core technologies while supporting the needs of line-of-business leaders,” says Carr.

Areas like mobile device management (MDM), interconnectivity of browsers and devices, and the use of data analytics will be improved by SDN. To be truly dynamic, SDN applications must be responsive to their environment, and CIOs must continually be monitoring and refining that environment.

“The promise of SDN is tied to the information that surrounds the network and the steps IT teams take to capture that information to drive business and IT decisions,” says Carr.

“CIOs can work with other business functions to consider how data is going to be collected, stored, accessed and utilized.”

Getting a head start

Research by Juniper Networks last year found more than half of US businesses surveyed planned to adopt SDN, 74 per cent of which said they plan to do so in 2015, and 30 per cent planning to make the move in just one month.

SDN barriers around changing skillsets and organizational readiness are slowly coming down, though one big one remains — the fear of locking the company into something that may not be the future standard.

Like many trends, competing vendors have jumped on the bandwagon really quickly, with software defined stores popping up everywhere filled with the same products but with new names.

“A lot of them are not quite what we’d call ‘software defined’…I’ve heard one vendor say ‘software defined power’. I’m waiting for ‘software defined software’ to pop up, everyone seems to have their own term,” said Cappuccio.

“It’s a big thought on everyone’s mind in these earlier days — can they build something today that will have a 10-year investment plan without locking themselves into something that doesn’t benefit from future changes with technology and growth,” adds McGregor.

He advises that CIOs look towards services that are open source and able to scale to meet growing business needs.

“It’s the most critical element right now. We’ve just seen so much growth, every time a new outfit comes along, like Netflix, we see double digit growth week on week.”

Early adopters of SDN are doing it in a very open standards environment, relying on their own internal capability to create niche applications and software.

“We’re just so early into that journey that though you need to build for growth now, you need to create openness in the way those architectures are built. If you get those elements correct you give yourself a great head start.”