Where is SDN Taking the Network?

SDN's transformation of the enterprise network has begun. Art Cole discusses the future of the industry.

By Arthur Cole | Posted Feb 12, 2016
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If the pundits and market analysts are to be believed, SDN is about to remake the enterprise. But what kind of network – if that name even applies – will be left in its wake when all is said and done? And how will this change what we have come to know as the networking industry?

The latest numbers paint a bright picture for SDN. IDC puts the overall market value at $12.5 billion by 2020, representing compound annual growth of nearly 54 percent between now and then. It’s important to note that IDC includes the physical layer in its definition of the software defined network, along with control software, applications and professional services, so there will likely be a solid market for new boxes as well, although not necessarily the integrated platforms of the major network vendors.  And all of this is but a small component of what IDC calls the Third Platform, which also incorporates public and private clouds and practically everything else that is breaking down today’s silo-based infrastructure.

But if companies like Cisco are sweating the transition from hardware- to software-based infrastructure, they aren’t showing it. The company recently posted a 2 percent gain in revenues on an 8 percent gain in net income, despite losses in some of its core switching areas, like enterprise and campus infrastructure. Categories like routing, collaboration, security and cloud services are making up for the losses and lending credence to Cisco’s decision to diversify its portfolio as the SDN winds were starting to gather.

Cisco did this primarily through partnerships and acquisitions, such as last week’s $1.4 billion takeover of IoT specialist Jasper Technologies, and we should expect more of this from networking players as the transition unfolds, says EnterpriseTech’s George Leopold. As organizations start to grapple with Big Data, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and rich media content like video sharing, the enterprise will be under the gun to obtain not just more bandwidth but more flexible networking applications and services. So anyone who hopes to compete in the networking space going forward needs to either incorporate these capabilities directly or partner up with those who can provide them.

You can also expect to see a more open networking platform emerge in the enterprise. With so much data migrating to third-party infrastructure, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain a cohesive, single-vendor, proprietary environment. This is why Dell and others are turning to open source solutions for their network operating stacks. By building broad programmability into the network using a free and unmodified Linux distribution for its OS10 release, Dell hopes to push services across increasingly disparate infrastructure. And as performance becomes more dependent on the exchange of data across the distributed enterprise, as opposed to raw processing, the network OS is expected to supplant the server OS as the central element of the data environment.

It can be argued that at some point the enterprise will have little use for a software defined network of its own, because data infrastructure will be increasingly provisioned on the cloud and what little that remains in the data center will be built around small-footprint, modular architectures that connect via PCIe, InfiniBand or some other interconnect format. This may hold for hyperscale/hyperconverged infrastructure, but most organizations are bent on the hybrid cloud at the moment, which requires highly flexible networking services both at home and over the wide area in order to meet the needs of emerging workloads. Deploying SDN on legacy infrastructure, even if it means swapping proprietary switches with white box infrastructure, is the final step in this process in that it puts the entire data stack onto an abstract footing where it can be configured in numerous innovative ways.

Rather than reinvent the data center from the ground up in order to achieve this networking nirvana, SDN allows the enterprise to leverage what they have a little longer.

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