October 2013

Software Defined Networking: Coming Soon to a Network Near You

“Software Defined Networking: Coming Soon to a Network Near You”

By: Justin Hadler, Director of Engineering, Hardware.com

The buzz around software defined networking (SDN), an approach that abstracts control from network endpoints to a centralised process in software, is getting louder and louder. SDN is poised to improve security, network efficiency, and flexibility while reducing complexity. But, shouldn’t your organisation have an understanding of how SDN will infiltrate the network community?

Rather than a quick implementation of SDN into the industry, we will see a progressive transition as SDN infiltrates the market place. The evolution of SDN can be broken into three phases, one which is currently underway, and two that are likely to occur over the next three to five years. Since SDN is going to overhaul network management, it’s critical for organisations to clearly understand when adoption should occur and what hurdles to overcome in order to reap the benefits of SDN.

Hype or here to stay?
According to a 2013 survey of more than 200 large organisations in the U.S. and Canada by Tail-f Systems, 87 per cent of respondents consider SDN an important technology initiative, surpassing virtualisation, mobility, and even the cloud.[1] These numbers suggest SDN is more than just mere hype. In fact, it’s well on its way to becoming the next generation of network management. According to market intelligence firm IDC, the SDN market is projected to grow to US$2 billion (approximately £1.3 billion) by 2016.[2] Given these predictions, it’s no surprise that industry heavyweights are also recognising the potential impact of the SDN market. VMware Inc., a global leader in virtualisation, recently acquired Nicira, Inc., a pioneer in the SDN arena, for more than US$1.2 billion.[3] Brocade also made a move with its 2012 purchase of Vyatta, an SDN development firm.

Phase One – Laying the foundation
The first phase of the SDN revolution is currently underway and nearing completion. It involves abstracting the ‘brains’ from network entities such as switches and routers and transitioning them into one centralised software process. By relying on one central part of the network to make forwarding decisions, organisations increase security and reduce network complexity.

A 2012 report by InformationWeek found that four per cent of 250 IT organisations surveyed have already implemented SDN.[4] Another five per cent of IT organisations are currently testing it. Those willing to become early adopters of SDN have the potential to set the stage for other organisations and realise a variety of benefits, including improved network utilisation and efficiency and the automation of provisioning and management. Another 48 per cent are only somewhat familiar with the concept.

Tail-f Systems’ survey found similar results. Although 92 per cent of organisations surveyed believe their understanding of SDN is “pretty good” or even “complete,” only about half chose a correct definition of SDN. As phase two of SDN’s evolution emerges, it’s likely organisations will better understand exactly what SDN is and how it will impact business.


Phase Two – SDN comes to market
The second phase of SDN’s journey involves participation from vendors such as Cisco, HP, and Juniper. Each will create and perfect its own software-based controllers. Some vendors are creating proprietary extensions, while others are taking a more open approach to their controllers. Even some third-party independent software-based controllers are emerging from startup companies such as Big Switch Networks.

According to Kash Shaikh, Senior Director of Product and Technical Marketing at HP Networking, HP is taking an aggressive approach to SDN.[5] HP currently offers 40 switches that support OpenFlow—the open-source network controller—and has sold more than 20 million switch ports that are OpenFlow-capable.

Since many features are still in their infancy, organisations adopting SDN in its early years will need to ensure that controllers and switches are from the same vendor in order to maintain consistency within the network. This may cause frustration for organisations looking to get controllers and switches for the best price, because they are tied to the same vendor.

Phase Three – SDN goes mainstream
Over the next five years, SDN will continue to evolve, and more organisations will begin adopting it—at which point, controllers and switches will reach equilibrium. During this stage, organisations will be able to select controllers and switches from multiple vendors that can work in harmony with one another. This presents an advantage, because network administrators will no longer be dependent on a single vendor—as they have been in the past. They can compare costs and select the hardware that best fits their organisations’ needs. Thus, as the mass adoption of SDN technology occurs, more organisations will start to realise the benefits currently being promoted by SDN’s supporters.

Making the Transition
With SDN, networks finally capture the technological innovation they’ve been lacking by becoming automated, more manageable, less complex, and faster at adapting to evolving organisational needs.

As with any new disruptive technology, education, and patience will be crucial in order to ensure a smooth transition to SDN. Organisations should address the learning curve and reduce skepticism by training network managers to recognise the main features and benefits of SDN before making the leap. Since network managers need to be sure their protocols for controllers do not disrupt a network, it’s also wise to work with experts in a lab to conduct trials in a safe setting. Training and trials will enable organisations to gain support for SDN, the next-generation of network management, by the time it becomes mainstream.

Justin Hadler is Director of Engineering at Hardware.com, a global leader in networking hardware, architectures, procurement, and support. Hardware.com’s team of experienced and distinguished consultants partner with companies to identify, implement, and support advanced network infrastructures that align companies’ technological requirements with their business and economic goals. For more information, please visit www.hardware.com.