SDN - yesterday, today and tomorrow

Read time 8min 10sec

Software-defined networking (SDN) is all about decoupling hardware from software. Paul Ruinaard, regional sales manager for Sub-Saharan Africa at Nutanix, describes SDN as changing the way we see the datacentre and network of the future. Software and functionality that used to be tightly coupled to specific hardware has now become uncoupled and can run on any hardware. "SDN takes a router, switch, firewall or load balancer and splits it up using software, rather than having separate hardware for each component," he says.

Businesses are no longer restricted by hardware lock-in, which means that they can release countless new features in the same time it would take to develop a new application or wait for new hardware capable of running the app, adds Ruinaard.

"SDN is the future of networking and there is no going back," says Cathy Smith, GM for Cisco Southern Africa. From a service provider perspective, this approach to networking has presented Cisco with an opportunity to change their business model and become more focused on recurring revenues rather than once-off sales. As the future of tech is all about mobile, video and machine-to-machine (M2M) connections, we expect to find a huge increase in the number and types of connections between people and things, generating new business opportunities for us, she adds.

According to Forrester, in the 12 months from October 2015 to October 2016, 39% of client networking inquiries were about SDN, indicating that businesses are keen to find out more about this trend. Forrester forecast that SDN will have a significant impact on how business is done today and that it will be a cornerstone technology in the next wave of digital business innovation. Although SDN may have dominated tech news headlines for some time, many companies struggle to deal with this emerging concept.

Are businesses ready?

For Shiraaz Singh, a networking solution specialist at Aptronics, SDN may have made significant strides, but adoption is still very slow. While he acknowledges that SDN has gained momentum, he describes it as a bit `clunky' and a little too complicated.

The challenge, says Ruinaard, is that SDN requires a different skillset to traditional network administration. "The hardware IT guys who understand packets and forwarding and routing and border domain controllers now have to understand a web front-end and SQL back-end, to ensure network performance. And troubleshooting becomes more complex too. It's possible to have the hardware up and running and forwarding packets, and have the virtualisation layer up, but not have the session and application layers working. This type of problem requires different troubleshooting skills to those traditionally found in the current crop of network administrators."

This is obviously a concern in South Africa, where we already have a dearth of high-level IT skills.

"Businesses need to examine the value and ask, 'Do I need it'. Presently, the answer is mostly 'No'. But this will change as SDN becomes standard, which forces businesses to adapt," continues Singh. "For now, the complication, skill, financial commitment and ROI are difficult to realise. But businesses must embrace that they will eventually have to employ SDN. This means understanding the different strategies available and ensuring any new networking kit is 'SDN- ready'."

Innovation for everyone?

All the industry experts agree that SDN may not be entirely the right fit for every business. "It would be easy to say that it is for every business, but there are different degrees of adoption. The truth is that by not evolving your business into something that is agile enough to adapt and change direction even faster than it could in the past, you are deterring your organisation's progress," states Griffiths.

SDN takes a router or switch or firewall or load balancer and splits it up using software; rather than having separate hardware for a each component.

SDN is certainly not something that any company can implement, because you need the skills on board, Ruinaard says, adding that once these skills are more readily available, the market is set to experience a dramatic shift. SDN has some very specific use cases and is following the typical deployment trajectory of any new technology, he says. "SDN will make a big dent in the walled gardens of the datacentre once businesses understand that they can build applications on the edges of their network, rather than in the datacentre itself. Companies will be running apps that are specific, and people won't be sticking to one brand of tin, and will invest in skills instead."

SDN may not be for everyone, says Hannes Lategan, a senior business technology architect for the office of the CTO at CA Southern Africa, but we are already consuming services provided across these innovations, and will continue to do so.

The rise of NFV

Before October 2012, SDN was a solution employed predominantly in the enterprise environment, says George Debbo, president of the South African Institute for Electrical Engineers.

SDN may have made significant strides but adoption is still very slow.

But at an SDN Conference held in Germany in October last year, seven of the top telecommunication service providers in the world got together and came up with Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV), a concept that expands on SDN. The driver for NFV is the need for service providers to significantly reduce network complexity, and introduce flexibility and agility. "SDN and NFV are mutually exclusive, meaning you can have the one without the other, but there are significant benefits in terms of network performance and economics to have the two technologies running together."

Finding the right fit for your business

Before you decide whether a virtual WAN is right for your organisation, Brendan Mc Aravey, of Citrix SA, believes businesses should consider these five questions:

o Does your business depend on the ability of employees to access centralised or hosted apps over remote connections?

o Do you rely on centralised or cloud-based VoIP services?

o Do you need to meet the demand for greater video bandwidth, without the high cost and inflexibility of an MPLS upgrade?

o Have you recently lost business due to network failures or performance issues?

o Are you locked into network contracts that you've been unable to negotiate?

Gary de Menezes, of Micro Focus, believes that companies looking for a competitive edge should also consider questions around performance, scalability and flexibility. These include:

  • How does the current system perform?
  • What technology can enhance performance to ensure reduction in cost and increase in productivity?
  • How does current technology being used in the business handle growth in terms of new users or number of transactions, or both?
  • Is the company's current technology flexible enough to cope with the continuously changing environment or does it require new technology to handle the logistics around this?

Is SD-WAN the next step?

Software-Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) is a natural evolution of last century's networking technology and management methods, notes Riverbed Technology's advanced technology group senior director, Paul Griffiths. "SDN started out life as a concept designed to bring flexibility and agility, along with associated cost savings within datacentre architectures," he says. "While it has seen some good traction in organisations across many industry verticals, what we have seen, and continue to see, is that customers are asking if there can also be SDN benefits realised beyond the boundaries of their datacentres, across their WAN."

SDN is the future of networking and there is no going back.

Citrix SA's Brendan Mc Aravey shares this sentiment, pointing out Gartner's forecast that the usage of SD-WAN will rise by 30% by 2020. Customers demanding always-on attention will be empowered by SD-WAN, which seamlessly connects business applications to users to provide a consistent customer experience, regardless of the customer's location. For example, during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Citrix provided New Zealand pay TV provider, Sky TV, with their SD-WAN offering to help them manage unpredictable network connectivity and increased bandwidth demands during the global sporting event. With hundreds of thousands of tourists, athletes and media, Sky TV needed a contingency plan to maintain network performance and accuracy and cover the Olympics without interruption.

Rerouting? The case for reliability and availability of SDN.

On August 11, 2016, a router update and datacentre automation glitch caused a two-hour disruption to Google's App Engine services. According to Google, 18% of applications hosted in the US-CENTRAL region experienced error rates between 10% and 50%, and 3% of applications experienced error rates in excess of 50%.

In July 2015, United Airlines blamed the grounding of hundreds of flights on a computer glitch. Some 59 flights were cancelled and there were more than 800 delays. According to the airline, the problem was due to a failed computer network router that disrupted its reservation system.

Also in July, a router failure caused Southwest Airlines' system to crash. This caused flight delays and cancellations nationwide and cost the company around $10 million in lost bookings alone.

This article was first published in the May 2017 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.

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