The Future of SDN: From Management to Automation

The future of SDN demands automation on a level that current management platforms don't provide, but that is changing.

By Arthur Cole | Posted Apr 8, 2016
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Software Defined Networking (SDN) and its telecom counterpart, Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), will usher in a new era in network efficiency, flexibility and scalability across the enterprise landscape. But it's important to note that most people, including myself, are still talking about this in the future tense. Yes, the future of SDN will provide all these things…once it is deployed and once developers have worked up the appropriate management platforms to enable it all.

The future of SDN starts with better management

That last part is a bit of a sticking point. Even though SDN platforms are available and they do have management stacks to guide them, the full-featured, autonomous, app-driven network environment you’ve heard about is still very much a work in progress.

According to BCC Research, the growth curve for SDN is one of the steepest the enterprise has seen in a long time. The firm estimates the market to jump from $2.4 billion today to $56 billion by 2020, a compound annual rate of more than 88 percent. In emerging markets like Asia-Pacific, the rate is even more dramatic – more than double each year – although the overall value is smaller: from $235 million today to $8.6 billion in 2020. As far as sales go, the future of SDN is well underway.

But while initial releases feature logical management of basic controller functions, applications that deliver intelligent load balancing, agile development, multi-tenancy and dynamic workload management are only starting to take shape. Pushing these capabilities into production environments will take a while, and even then a unified SDN architecture will likely require a convergence of multiple software and hardware components, as well as various abstraction layers, services and functions.

This is why it is important for early adopters to recognize that significant challenges remain before the future of SDN can be realized, says Cloud Tech’s James Bourne. Virtual environments are naturally more complex than physical ones, which is why they are more suitable to software control. But until the software management stack gains the appropriate visibility into dynamic data environments, truly advanced functionality will be lacking. So at this point, organizations will be able to leverage SDN as a means to streamline network infrastructure, but it could be a while before we see the end-to-end virtual fabrics that have been promised.

And if anyone thinks that managing virtual networks will be a snap has a surprise in store. As CIMI Corp. President Tom Nolle points out, low-level procedures like forwarding control and hosting are just the beginning. The development community has barely scratched the surface when it comes to higher order functions like fault correlation among virtual components and traffic management in highly scaled environments. Most vendors will say these capabilities are well in hand, but the fact is they have seen very little action in production environments, so it is understandable if early adopters want to take a go-slow approach to virtual networking for the moment.

This is particularly true once you make the transition from simple management to full automation, says Everest Group CEO Peter Bendor-Samuel. A software defined environment requires a high degree of standardization if the automation stack is to have any hope of providing effective oversight, which means that even after the basic SDN layer is deployed, there is still quite a bit of legwork to do before you can implement automated control. A good place to start, of course, is in the test bed, as this provides a quick return on the investment in the form of faster development. From there, automation can expand to the provisioning process, where it provides an effective means of launching the appropriate computing environments for those in need.

To be fair, there was never any reason to expect virtual networking to evolve any differently from server or storage virtualization. At first, it serves as a cost-saving and hardware consolidation measure, and only once it gains a foothold in the data center do the more refined functionality benefits emerge.

The future of SDN could still deliver on all of its promises, but executives should know that at this point it requires a leap of faith that someday, somehow, the advanced management issues will get worked out.

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