Networks on Steroids

There are two schools of thinking in many things. One goes by established conventions and the other goes by radical thinking. Today, networks across the world need a radical intervention that can tweak its performance to a new level of performance, resiliency, and agility

he Software Defined Networking (SDN) ushers in a new paradigm and can offer the much needed back-end support for leading trends like cloud to Internet of Things (IoT) or anything that rides on the network.

Why SDN Makes Sense?

Network architectures often times suffer from rigidity and hence they have remained non-elastic over the years. But with the advent of Software Defined Networking (SDN), things are in for a change. While much has been written about SDN in the last one year on what is SDN-let’s in a nutshell see the explanations given to us by the industry experts in our conversations with them and try and demystify SDN for you. What SDN does is it starts by virtualizing the network, decoupling the logical view of a network from its physical implementation.

It does so by creating an abstraction layer between server hosts and existing networking gear which decouples and isolates virtual networks for specific networking hardware, turning it into a pool of network capacity. This enables the on-demand, programmatic creation of tens of thousands of isolated virtual networks with the simplicity and operational ease of creating and managing virtual machines. The resulting business value comes from more agile, efficient, flexible, and robust networking configurations.

Welcome to the age of programmable networks. Before digging into SDN dynamics, we need to factor this from the perspective of overall infrastructure management. For instance, some of the industry experts believe that Software Defined Infrastructure (SDI) is the way forward and SDN is one key component of that. Here we are talking about in a typical SDI the key infrastructure elements like network to storage is driven by software. Coming back to SDN as a standalone entity and if we were to decode the aggressive debates happening right now and why such heightened level of interest? The answer lies in the evolution of IT today into a network dependant entity and the customer expectations of 100% up time-even five nines uptime is just not enough for this day and age of always on and access from anywhere and on the go demands.

Thanks to cloud computing that has made the old tech adage that ‘network is the computer’ into a fact and without pro-active network backbone in many ways IT is non-existent. This is the crux of the SDN evolution we are seeing right now.

SDN Upclose

What is empowering SDN is virtualization. For cloud, virtualization is the key, but for seamless virtualization one needs network agility and flexibility-the much needed two critical areas. But if we look at the current scenario, experts say that the network is now a barrier to achieving the full benefits of virtualization because the application and provisioning is manually intensive, taking days or weeks to provision even simple network topologies to support applications. Moreover, the workload placement and mobility is limited by physical network constraints and topology and finally the network is operationally intensive, requiring significant ongoing manual hardware configuration and maintenance, and vendor-specific expertise.

So, clearly CIOs need a lot of vendor understanding in taking on to SDN and there need to be a whole lot demystification exercises that is to be done. Vendors are also working in close concert with the enterprises and partners in making their strategies more viable.

The SDN Due Diligence

To all the CIOs/CTOs reading this, the above gives you the basic insights on some of the vendors play in this space and their aggressive strategies they have for SDN. It’s true, a technology like SDN is not easy, so putting an SDN road map is critical and that such a roadmap forms the starting premise of any technology head at enterprise to take the plunge into the software defined anything age. Experts say that CIOs, CFOs, and CTOs who can demonstrate how implementing a SDN solution can actually result in a network that pays for itself. Sure there are benefits. But what are some of the issues and fine print?

There are many caveats one needs to factor in. Let’s hear what some analysts say. Even though SDN is widely popular but it will not cure enterprise infrastructure and operations (I&O’s) ills for three reasons: One, they don’t yet meet the criteria of enterprise technology management. Two, key vendors don’t offer SDN functionality as part of their mainstream product lineup; and three SDN doesn’t address all the changes that need to occur within the network stack or platform. Even if the market was delivering enterprise-ready solutions, most enterprise I&O teams lack the experience and maturity to manage such an environment. Enterprise I&O teams should expect to see mature products in about 5-8 years.

Clearly, the SDN landscape is riddled with many challenges and many issues still remain myopic and lack clarity. Does that mean, CIOs need to go slow or wait and watch? No that does not mean that I&O leaders and their teams should not start planning for the inevitable SDN and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) transition. I would suggest they better start by using the 5 tenets of Virtual Network Infrastructure (VNI) to frame their network technology strategy and then apply lessons learned from agile manufacturers to guide their transition.

According to Forrester the VNI tenets will help organizations transition from thinking about networks in terms of network segments and components to thinking about them as an interwoven network services system. At any one moment in time, this infrastructure has the ability to orchestrate and interweave the underlying components to deliver the right service, at the right location, at the right time, for the right user.

What one needs to understand here is that business models are witnessing a massive shift due to consumerization of technology, the IoT and an always-on mindset. As such, enterprise computing is increasingly expected to deliver experiences that are seamless (through greater simplification) and consistent (through greater predictability), while at the same time providing a progressive platform that can make it possible to add new service lines like never before. Software Defined Networking (SDN) has a key role to play here.

It will take a while to fully understand and leverage the benefits of SDN as it is clearly a new way of managing the networks. It brings in a new paradigm in network design architecture and manageability and enable the networks in meeting demanding critical workloads.

But yet again, one needs to approach SDN with a cautious optimizm.

Experts see that SDN is a disruptive development. But at the same time a lot of homework needs to go in understanding the various issues at the granular level. For instance, in a conventional network, even if part of the network goes down, one can still operate with whatever is up.

But since SDN is controller based and if it goes down it will have major downtime ramifications. So CIOs need to plan critical manageability and policy issues like business continuity and security for a successful SDN rollout.

Like any emerging technology, it will be a while for SDN adoption as a mainstream architecture within enterprises. While existing hardware layer can be integrated, vendors may have to reengineer/tweak the design of future underlying infrastructure to complement this type of a network. Since the network control is directly programmable there is a paradigm shift in managing network traffic routing and security. This can be centralized and provide agility, elasticity and enhanced security in network management. I foresee a wider adoption among service providers who have large data centers and providing cloud services. I also envisage the security landscape changing extensively with wider adoption of SDN across organizations.”

Now we come to the critical part-will it alter the CIO decision making in terms of network buying and management? While expers do not see a major shift in terms of network buying as the infrastructure transport layer is anyhow required. To my knowledge, most CIOs and CTOs are having a cautious approach as this has a direct business impact in terms of operations, uptime and performance. Some good live and successful implementations would accelerate adoption among CIOs. The skill sets network engineers will have to go a few notches higher as SDN necessitates additional skills for centralized network management.”

At The End Of The Day…

So, the key takeaway out of SDN is that it’s an impending and inevitable evolution in network computing and it has the potential to take the performance to a new level. While a consensus on the post SDN benefits and benchmarks are yet to emerge, but there is a consensus among both CIOs and analysts that no CIO can afford to ignore this trend. But they need to navigate this space with caution like any other new tech and find a way out of the maze. To sum up, “CIOs need to understand and learn from other similar installations. Ensure that the architecture is drawn out in advance and whetted and audited before implementing. Invest extensive time in planning since the architectural change that SDN necessitates gets into the guts of current infrastructure layer and undergoes drastic change. So any minor slip-up could also cause major downtimes and lead to a DR situation. Start with a PoC within a smaller network and have a hybrid environment while cautiously transitioning from the traditional network to an SDN.

Shrikanth G


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