SDN in the Real World: Expectations vs. Realities

SDN is still in the very early stages of deployment. Many of even its earliest adopters have barely entered the testing phase. So it’s only natural that expectations run high for enterprises to soon sit atop a fully virtualized, on-demand data environment.

We’ve heard this all before, of course. Every computing development since the mainframe has ushered in talk of digital nirvana. But even the most successful advancements—think virtualization—have generally failed to live up to the initial hype, even when they have advanced IT infrastructure in new and innovative ways.

So before the CIO pulls the trigger on SDN, it’s worth it to examine some of these early expectations and see whether they are achievable, or even desirable, in the real world.

QuinStreet Enterprise, parent company of Enterprise Networking Planet, recent released a survey of IT executives that showed that more than 60 percent of organizations are already deploying aspects of software defined networking, either in private or hybrid cloud architectures. The impetuses behind this activity are well-known at this point: increased flexibility, streamlined infrastructure and the programmability benefits that come from pulling network intelligence out of hardware components and into software-based systems. All of this is certainly within the purview of SDN, although it remains to be seen whether such a dynamic environment will lend itself to effective management or, like Frankenstein’s monster, develop a mind of its own.

At the moment, the enterprise is looking to longtime networking vendors to implement SDN, which puts those vendors under the gun to deliver the goods that their marketing departments have promised. Current Analysis recently laid out a number of key development goals that the vendor community needs to achieve in order to meet expectations. These goals include significant improvements in automated management and network access control, as well as optimization of security, traffic management, monitoring and application delivery. Again, all of this has been promised before, with mediocre results. If top vendors fail to amaze yet again, the enterprise may decide it has nothing to lose by turning to one of the many startups vying for SDN glory.

Already, many of these new firms are touting their successes in bringing some fairly complicated network environments to heel. Nuage Networks, for example, recently outfitted Pittsburgh, PA, health provider UPMC with a new backup network serving 22 hospitals and more than 2.2 million members. The organization implemented Nuage’s Virtualized Services Platform (VSP), which relies on a virtual services controller and centralized directory, plus a virtual gateway architecture that allows SDN policy enforcement and automation to be carried out across both physical and virtual infrastructure. In this way, the company gains improved provisioning, uptime and failover capabilities. If all goes according to plan, the firm is poised to carry the architecture over to its Cisco-based legacy production environments within the year.

But what if SDN proves too disruptive to legacy environments, asks Neela Jacques, executive director of the OpenDaylight Project. To date, most solutions require an overlay configuration or the broad deployment of new networking hardware. This is a tricky call for most enterprises: unlike server and storage infrastructure, upgrades to networking aren’t typically done in isolation. Changes in one set of network elements inevitably impact others. Quite naturally, Jacques sees the solution as greater reliance on open systems, which will allow organizations to deploy a range of functions gradually, with little disruption and built-in resistance to vendor lock-in. Of course, open technology has its own history of over-promising and under-delivering, particularly when it comes to highly interdependent architectures.

At this point, there is nothing to say that SDN can’t provide the dynamic, intelligent and highly automated network environment that supporters dream of. But will it? Given the competitive pressure facing vendors to capture the driver’s seat in the future of networking, it’s only natural that they strive to make their SDN platforms as indispensable as possible for the long haul.

That will undoubtedly push their designers to make them as feature-rich as possible and ultimately deliver on the promises made over the past year. But there is no guarantee they will succeed.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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