How Is SDN Implementation Unfolding And What Challenges Remain?

25 Apr 2014 by Technology

Over the last several months, software-defined networking has gone from being a marginally discussed experimental technology to one of the most widely lauded advancements in data center infrastructure. With the promise of abstracting various elements of the data center – particularly the network infrastructure – have come a number of eager promises about improving overall operations. With network virtualization, one of the chief bottlenecks of faster cloud computing and application delivery – poor bandwidth utilization – can be overcome, freeing up data centers to better handle the growing workloads of advanced applications, as well as the new reality in which calls to the data center are smaller but more frequent. With SDN, suddenly the entire data center is flattened out and made more efficient.

Software-Defined Networking Connecting Data at Hyper-Fast Speed. “You can place any workload anywhere in the data center, and you stop caring about how the traffic will flow,” Ivan Pepelnjak, chief technology advisor at NIL Data Communications, recently explained in a video for Network Computing. “Because wherever you place the workload it always looks the same.”

But even as enthusiasm is soaring for SDN technology, how is it being implemented in the real world?

Gauging Deployment Timelines

A recent Infonetics survey found that nearly all leading telecom and data center vendors plan to deploy some form of software-defined networking (97 percent) or network functions virtualization (93 percent) in their data centers in the future. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they were currently implementing SDNs, and 52 percent said they were planning to evaluate the technology by the end of 2014.

A recent Research and Markets study anticipated that growth in the SDN, NFV and network virtualization market would occur at a compound annual rate of nearly 60 percent through 2020. By that point, the technology is expected to save service providers as much as $32 billion in annual capital expenditures as they reduce their reliance on physical hardware. This year is likely the year in which the technology finally begins making its way into the real world, while substantive deployments are likely to really start in 2015, according to Infonetics Research co-founder Michael Howard.

“This is the year that SDN and NFV move from the lab to field trials,” he said. “Many carriers are in the process of moving from SDN/NFV proof-of-concept projects to working with vendors in the development and ‘productization’ of software that will become the basis for commercial deployments.”

Actual commercial deployments will likely begin in earnest in 2015, at which point they will most likely be primarily concentrated in a few use cases as test deployments. A recent GigaOM study suggested that current timelines for SDN and NFV deployment are “extremely aggressive.” The takeaway is that hopes are high for the technology, even if real-world pressures in terms of budgets, limitations of the actual technology and organizational inertia slow things down. While reduced costs and improved utilization are frequently cited as long-term goals, the study noted that right now operators are primarily looking to deploy SDN and NFV to simplify network operations.

Bank Of America’s Software-Defined Data Center Push

One company that’s already had some success moving to more of a software-defined infrastructure is Bank of America, which is working to apply the approach across server, firewall, network, switch, storage device and other hardware. It currently is running around 200 completely virtual workloads across different stacks, although it aims to scale this number up to 7,000 in the coming year, David Reilly, managing director of technology infrastructure, recently told CIO Insight. Among the benefits of the SDDC initiative is that it allows the company to quickly roll out new capabilities and expand into new geographies. However, BoA’s push has underscored some of the barriers that will continue to be an issue for other companies as they look to adopt a more software-defined model.

“There are technical, practical and cultural challenges,” Reilly told CIO Insight. “For one thing, you can’t buy this framework anywhere today. It isn’t available from any single provider. It’s also an evolving ecosystem. And there are questions, including how open will this environment be? So, we are focused on maintaining an open approach and assembling components that fit together seamlessly.”

Reilly added that the new approach also requires some human reorganization, as it will necessarily shift the role of IT to be more services-oriented. In BoA’s case, the combination of these changes means that the company is restructuring IT and adding new skill sets while also reassessing vendor partnerships. With the phase of implementation still early, the company is encouraging internal competition to come up with new, better solutions. So far the model seems to be working, but there’s an underlying question of how fast BoA can move in going software-defined.

Moving Toward A Simpler Solution

All of these complications, coupled with aggressive but nonetheless incremental deployment approaches, mean that the software-defined network may still be a number of years off for many companies. While large enterprises like BoA may have the resources and the institutional will to move toward the new model, the reality is that any new technology takes longer to trickle down to small and midsize businesses, Network Computing contributor Bob McCouch wrote in a recent column. Just as server virtualization and high-speed Ethernet ports took a few years longer to reach the average data center than the enterprise data center, SDN will have a bit of a lag in adoption.

“Simply, many companies of this size can tolerate only limited risk on infrastructure projects and are not comfortable spending time and money on a new technology until it is well-understood, well-packaged, and prices drop due to broader adoption,” McCouch wrote. “They just do not have the resources (budgetary or human) to be the innovators, develop new ways to use technologies, or adopt early when standards, products, and vendors are still evolving.”

The reality is that SDN is not yet well-packaged or well-understood, and it’s still expensive. Even though smaller companies are eager to make the implementation, the realities that Reilly spoke to – that there is no single solution, that companies are still figuring out the right mix of technologies needed to make up a truly software-defined infrastructure – are persistent. Once packaged, turnkey solutions for SDN emerge, the shift will likely take place relatively quickly, McCouch wrote. Some solutions that fit this label are beginning to emerge, which means that while the key moment for SDN may still be a few years off, it may not be as far away as it seems. With strong interest and aggressive adoption plans in place, the transition is underway.

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