Software-Defined Networking Takes Shape

By Samuel Greengard

As organizations and their CIOs look for ways to manage enterprise networks more efficiently, a growing number are eyeing or adopting software-defined networking (SDN). The technology, which separates the control layer from the physical hardware that routes network packets, aims to simplify the configuration process for network components and boost overall performance by, among other things, automating provisioning, reducing latency, providing better analytics for traffic engineering, and boosting quality of service.

Twenty-seven percent of organizations have committed to an SDN strategy and begun to implement the technology, according to a December 2013 study conducted by Enterprise Strategy Group. Another 63 percent reported that they are either committed to SDN as a strategy and are actively evaluating it or are conceptually interested in SDN. In 2012, by contrast, no major network vendors had even announced an SDN solution. The primary benefits of SDN, according to a Brocade survey, are increased productivity (42 percent), better access to real-time information (40 percent), improved uptime and availability (38 percent), and increased service delivery (30 percent).

“Unlike much of the software-defined everything hype out there, software-defined networking actually represents a change in the way networks are architected,” states Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. “The goal is to create a far more agile and responsive network infrastructure that dramatically reduces the time required to provision the network and a variety of network services. If successful, SDN has the potential to enable the network to match the virtualized server environment in terms of speed and delivery of services.”

However, there’s been no shortage of hype surrounding SDN—and vendors have flooded the market with announcements over the last year or so. This includes industry giants such as Cisco Systems and Brocade. Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., an independent consulting firm, says there’s a lack of understanding about what the term means and what it represents. “Today, uttering the word ‘SDN’ doesn’t mean a lot more than saying the word ‘computer’ or ‘server.’ It’s a very generic term.” What’s more, because SDN is typically implemented in narrow niches and smaller enclaves, there’s no way to migrate to the technology en masse. “There’s no global SDN network capability,” Nolle says.

That leaves CIOs and other IT executives to approach the technology in pieces or phases. Nolle says it’s best to consider the technology for large data centers with lots of servers and many layers of switching. “If you are running componentized applications that are exchanging information through a workflow enterprise service bus or similar system, then SDN may have enough benefits to consider. It may not be the only strategy, but it probably is a reasonable strategy.” Geographically dispersed organizations, on the other hand, are less likely to realize significant returns.

Nolle believes that SDN adoption will spike significantly by 2015 or soon thereafter. “It’s a good time to do the fact-finding, understand different models and begin to sort things out,” he says. This information-gathering process also includes understanding how the technology changes security. Laliberte believes it’s wise to keep an eye on ecosystems and partnerships as vendors build out products in the SDN space. It’s also critical to know what stage a product is at, alpha, beta or commercially available. “Vendors are all at different stages of maturity with their SDN solutions, plus in some areas standards—such as the northbound interface OpenFlow that connects the SDN to the network services—have yet to be defined. The ecosystems need to be sorted out and partners must integrate solutions.”

In the end, Laliberte says it’s important to map out a clear migration path to SDN but, with a typical five- to seven-year depreciation cycle for networking equipment, to look for some level of investment protection. Laliberte also suggests considering solutions that provide complete visibility across the physical and virtual network, with a goal of deploying a single controller for SDN and network virtualization. “The equipment organizations buy today must be production ready but with an option to add SDN in the future,” he concludes.

About the Author

Samuel Greengard is a contributing writer for CIO Insight.

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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