All change” – the new story in town is a “software defined something” story with software defined networking (SDN) top of the hype wave for many. Is now really the time for SDN?
Is SDN an essential networking concept or technological advancement? In reality, “No” due to more than enough tacit and continually evolved operational and technical insight already available to deliver enterprise networks of today. However do the concepts presented by SDN have the potential to deliver real world networking operational and financial benefits by enabling previously unthinkable or challenging networking outcomes, “Yes”. At present the hype is clouding reality and sadly causing a fair disconnect in the minds of networking stakeholders. We observe a common cycle (and not unusual with new technology introduction) with numerous prospects for the SDN story deciding in advance based on the hype and momentum that its essential to them, followed by unsuccessful attempts to translate the new technical highlights into real world justifications for change.
The likelihood of success by adopting this “hype and hope” approach is rare. There are some organisations (few) who may be fortunate to find a short term SDN silver bullet that can be used to validate “why SDN” – but for the masses the path to success must start with a true understanding (really isolated) of the future business needs of the organisation with an appraisal of whether the existing networking footprint can enable it. The current functional networking environment for many is more than adequate and whether delivered by teams of highly qualified engineers or as an outsourced footprint – “works” (and in the main works well). But for many “works” in tomorrow’s business template requires a networking environment with way more facets including flexibility, optimum security, agility, “application intimacy”, ease of change and true integration with other infrastructure environments top of the success criteria. It points to the importance of justifying SDN adoption or evolution based on less “technical me too” advancements but more on the key activities (outcomes) the networking layer must underpin for today and tomorrow with an unemotive appraisal of the new challenges that will be faced.
Now we arrive at an area of controversy & confusion – cost reduction. Many of the earlier value statements surrounding SDN laboured or majored in cost reduction. Yet early indication suggests that is less likely in the short term (due to the need over time to depreciate and decommission key existing networking infrastructure investments). That’s not to say costs cannot be saved – by delivering newer greenfield type environments with SDN fundamentals at the core, a cost conscious footprint can be designed and deployed. However that is currently more challenging with more common networking infrastructure templates based on well funded, stable platforms with well defined operational processes and well formed financial controls. Sending good networking platforms out to pasture for “SDN promises” will prove a somewhat false economy.
SDN is here to stay and the benefits to networking deployment and service delivery will be in time unquestioned. But now is the time to understand how the SDN high notes mentioned by many can deliver real world benefits to real customers based on real use cases. Most compelling is the flexibility a software based networking environment will deliver to cloud or virtualised environments. The potential for “application intimacy” and real world reductions in “human latency” or configuration delays enabled by SDN makes selection of future network infrastructure elements with SDN compatibility a must. And lastly with multiple vendors purveying SDN strategies that maintain loose compatibility with each other but are often best delivered as a single vendor outcome, careful consideration is required before any definitive strategy/product/vendor selections are made.
SDN has made the networking arena interesting and exciting to a degree not seen for many years (possibly not since the change from hubs to switches). It will ensure existing market players innovate and accelerate to remain viable in the future and enable a window of opportunity for new market entrants to lead a charge based on a new world order. Networking will never be the same again.
Until next time
A quick look at the current popular enterprise networking infrastructure platforms and they all seem to suffer from a similar predicament – almost without exception the functionality is good, reliability levels are high and performance (in relevant terms) delivers against expectations.
The reasons for this rather stable state include a networking journey to date that embraced the pain of interoperability and standardisation many years ago, the common use of high performance off the shelf network processing asics (with a few notable vendor exceptions) and until recently no real need to change the status quo.
After numerous years of highly effective network solution design by the extensively trained and highly talented network engineers, that embraced inherent technology limitations and extracted maximum performance we now have our “good enough” networks. I reiterate that there are many great network engineers that underpin the largest enterprises in the world, make complex networking “just work” and deliver business outcome after outcome – helping in many cases to hide that fact that below the surface all is not as well as it may seem.
But surely, if you were given a blank sheet of paper and networking / security designs were architected with a clean view of the vendor landscape plus tomorrows business outcomes as well as today’s, would you still design yesterdays way? If the business outcomes of today and definitely tomorrow differ from the network usage approach of yesteryear surely good enough can’t still be “good enough”.
A five year old network designed and configured for large volumes of direct connected network servers with one Gigabit interfaces surely won’t be good enough for a densely consolidated converged infrastructure requiring multiple ten Gigabit network interfaces. Equally a multi layer network topology originally configured for hundreds and potentially thousands of physical servers, with multiple physical network interfaces has very different operational and performance characteristics to a distributed switch, hypervisor virtualised network layer.
The stage is set for good enough (or worse) networks to be evolved in line with tomorrow’s application and business requirements. Software defined networks (SDN) underpinned by the open standards aligned with OpenFlow and Openstack protocols and frameworks may in time enable the granular levels of flexibility and capability required to personalise today’s “good enough” general purpose networked infrastructure footprint into outcome specific networked topologies. This blog was set to discuss the well crafted Cisco ONE strategy that leverages the value delivered by OpenFlow and Openstack and clearly positions a customer journey that leverages existing technologies interfaced with the emerging software network footprints and equally the highly innovative HP VAN software aligned network play that leverages IMC and IRF tightly woven into those same open network software foundations, to deliver tangible application aligned networking.
But both of those great stories may now be somewhat pale when compared to VMware shock acquisition of Nicira. Put simply the worlds dominant x86 hypervisor vendor now includes a highly regarded SDN networking core that can be leveraged in numerous and as yet unannounced ways that could potentially paint a new picture for enterprise networking. (save this for another blog).
So “Good enough networks” in the not too distant future may become a thing of the past. Will they ever be “perfect networks”, unlikely due to the ever changing nature of business and increasing levels of complexity, but could they become much closer aligned with the levels of flexibility and adaptability and cost effectiveness currently sought by enteprise network customers. “Quite possibly”…….
And then they will be more than “Good enough”.
Until next time