A product expert, a CEO and an engineer walk into a meeting room. This isn’t the preamble to a joke, but the setting for my chat with the team from Redvine Networks, a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) solutions provider. Today, we’re discussing all things software- defined network (SDN) and SD-WAN. According to Wesley van Rayne, product and solutions lead at Redvine Networks, networking has traditionally lagged behind other areas of IT and technology, and held to a hardware-centric approach until about five years ago.
This is now changing.
SDN has been described as a model that will revolutionise the network industry. But it does leave those who have made sizeable investments in hardware in a bit of a pickle, particularly businesses tied into longer-term hardware contracts.
These businesses, says Van Rayne, can sweat their assets, or they can rip and replace assets or even hybridise solutions so that their legacy technology continues to work alongside SDN technology. But there are cost implications, he adds.
If cost savings are what you’re after, says Ntando Dhlamini, BCX executive for product network solutions data, then SDN is a great solution because you can scale up without having to add more hardware.
Other benefits of this approach to networking include greater flexibility, increased security and a better user experience, says Van Rayne. “What makes SDN exciting is the way the traffic lines are separated. This separation delivers flexibility in your architecture, which allows you to be more agile and makes it possible to scale up with ease,” he says. And because your configuration is stored centrally, you become more resilient as a result.
Everyone knows about skills shortages, says Binesh George, CEO and co-founder of Redvine Networks, adding that when your network is centralised, you need far fewer people to manage it. “In the MPLS days, you had to have highly skilled engineers distributed throughout the country, or at least across the major metros. Today, these skills can sit somewhere centrally and do the same work.”
SDN’s ultimate purpose
This means better and more efficient disaster recovery strategies, says George. Additionally, not being constrained by hardware means that you no longer have to buy dedicated appliances to meet your changing business requirements. And when new technologies or improved features come out, you don’t have to wait to ship a new device to enjoy the benefits of these updates. “With SDN, businesses can access new features just like that, much like you would when upgrading the operating system on a smartphone.”
But before businesses migrate to SDN, it’s critical that they understand the fundamentals and the ultimate purpose of SDN, says George. “SDN is about helping customers gain independence so that they aren’t tied down by hardware lifecycles or the strict contract terms from service providers that have locked them into longterm contracts in the past.” Similarly, it’s important to know your purpose, says Dhlamini. “For me, one of the biggest things is just taking the time to speak to the people who do the work about the particular journey you’re planning to embark on so that you can settle on the right solution. It’s not what the technology can do that determines how it will fit into your organisation. It’s what you want to do with the technology that will determine the success or failure of your efforts.”
Brainstorm: What are some of the major pitfalls relating to SDN and how do you overcome these?
Ntando Dhlamini, executive for product network solutions data, BCX:
“Skills are definitely an issue. But this is why different managed services providers exist. Rather than having to buy kit, hiring people with the necessary talent and trying to do everything yourself, customers can work with partners that have the skills and expertise they need.”
Brendan Cuthbertson, head of distribution, Cisco Middle East and Africa:
“The primary objective of network teams is to continuously deliver application and service performance and protection for the business. So, while SDN offers important advances in automation, it’s only part of the solution. Organisations also need continuous network monitoring and optimisation to support increasingly dynamic and digitally-driven business models. To achieve this, networks need to be able to understand the changing intent of the business and monitor dynamic network conditions so they can continuously accommodate that intent. An intentbased network captures business intent and uses analytics, machine learning, machine reasoning and automation to align the network continuously and dynamically to changing business needs, as well as adapt to changing network loads and other environmental effects.”
How does SDN improve your security posture, if at all?
Morne Vermeulen, lead engineer, Redvine Networks:
“If you throw about the term SDN, security isn’t immediately what jumps into everyone’s minds, but the security aspect of this approach is very powerful, especially when used properly. If you deploy 1 000 firewalls, but you have to manage all of them individually, it’s very hard for your operations team to make sure that everything is configured in the same way. Because SDN is software-driven, your management is less complex, so you’re less likely to miss things. The more scalable your management, the less air gaps in your security posture, which makes governance easier.”
Ntando Dhlamini, BCX:
“Security is a key driver for the adoption of SDN. Thanks to zero trust architecture, anyone trying to access the network won’t be treated like a trusted entity until they’ve proven their identity. And no one is treated as a safe destination until their access into that particular application or infrastructure is approved. For businesses that have branches across different locations, updating your security posture is far simpler with SDN. If, for example, a retailer introduces a new security policy, it doesn’t have to reconfigure everything across all 300 branches. You do it once and this change will automatically carry across your entire network architecture.”
FINDING THE RIGHT SD-WAN FIT
According to Shamiel Kimmie, CIO at Duxbury Networking, before any business dives into the SD-WAN vendor selection process, it’s essential to introspect and understand your organisation’s current network challenges, your goals and your network requirements. “Ask yourself what problems you are facing today and how you foresee these challenges evolving in the future. This critical self-assessment will serve as your north star in choosing the right SD-WAN solution. It can be easy to be lured by industry buzzwords and marketing hype, but rather take a thoughtful and strategic approach, consider your specific challenges and future projections and then find the best vendor to address your unique situation.”
Kimmie adds that it’s a good idea to start by asking what differentiates vendor A from vendor B. Then, you need to do a little research. “Find out how a particular vendor resolved challenges similar to yours and assess if their technology roadmap aligns with your organisation’s long-term goals. Take some time to look at the different security measures the vendor has in place to protect the network. As we’ve witnessed in other industries, this software-focused approach isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
THE RIGHT SOFT SKILLS FOR NETWORKING AUTOMATION SUCCESS
It’s no secret that there has long been a talent shortage across the IT sector, especially when it comes to areas like networking. While these more technical skills are incredibly important – just ask those who can’t find them – it’s equally important that modern networking teams harness certain soft skills, according to a recent report from Forrester Research. Some of these soft skills include:
Being open to collaboration:
Studies show that more collaborative teams solve problems faster because they leverage the strengths of every team member. Collaborative engineers are more likely to be better at building next-generation networks because they are willing to work with other teams to design and deploy the best solution.
An innovative and curious nature:
Businesses that fail to innovate will struggle to maintain their market relevance. Innovative and curious individuals drive improvement and are constantly looking for new solutions to existing problems, which is valuable across modern networking teams.
Let’s face it, the market is always changing, which means that fresh opportunities – and challenges – are always around the corner. Being about to solve both complex and uncomplicated problems and come up with efficient and effective solutions based on the information available is key.
As the business world changes, modern networking professionals might be asked to help in areas where they haven’t worked in the past. The right team member is quick to learn and is adaptable enough to leverage new tools and processes as and when they need to.
* Article first published on brainstorm.itweb.co.za