SDN catalyst for agility and innovation

Almost three out of five CIOs we speak with today tell us that technology providers often seem to be pushing software defined networks (SDN) simply to sell hardware, writes Verizon’s Peter Konings, and they just don’t need more hardware.

Let’s be clear: SDN isn’t a box. It is about enabling better performance and efficiency in the software layer. What all CIOs today really need to understand is how to leverage SDN to improve performance and reinvent their business processes in order to be able to compete more effectively.

While cost reduction will usually be the most compelling benefit for any technology adoption, the more persuasive argument for SDN adoption is that the technology can drive enterprise-wide change. Successful proof-of-concepts are frequently moving to production quicker than planned. Greater network agility and reduced cost allows a CIO to package services differently, which can reduce time to market and reduce opportunity costs. This gives the CIO greater business agility, which in turn offers more freedom to innovate, catalyzing an upward innovation spiral.

SDN for optimising cloud and virtualisation

If you look at network models used across most organizations, they haven’t really evolved much since the 90s. But how much has technology has changed? We’ve applied Moore’s Law to networking in moving from 10Mbps to 10Gbps and beyond, but we have only just started seeing changes in network architecture. As our perimeter dissolves, more applications are being hosted in the cloud, and with application hosting environments sitting outside the traditional internal network, a different, more optimal model is required.

Now, imagine an application that can detect demand and move compute instances and network loads to different server farms based on where the user is located. Bear with me here: SDN helps to fulfil this by decoupling control from the hardware plane. Rather than requiring hardware, physical equipment or significant human intervention to provision for expansion or contraction based on usage needs, SDN enables a CIO to scale up and down as needed via software controls. As a result, SDN is an enabling technology that allows an organisation to drive far greater efficiency and agility from their network and virtualisation environments. It also allows for significantly improved management, increased visibility and better automation. No more over-provisioning!

The same application could change network routes based on revenue projections or data sensitivity within the application.

Protecting against attacks with embedded security

Embedded security isn’t a new concept. A few years ago, the Jericho Forum was started with a view to developing a way of stopping network attacks against application infrastructure. The drive for setting up the forum was the rise in cyber-attacks such as phishing, SQL and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that give attackers access to internal systems.

One such technology is the software defined perimeter (SDP).  This technology re-architects the perimeter to provide advanced identity and application-specific access control. It is a far superior security model, and is particularly valuable for companies active in cloud-based environments.

Here’s another benefit: having to manage and secure increasing amounts of data means that full network visibility and transparency are essential. The network automation and orchestration gained via SDN and SDP delivers more data that can itself deliver valuable, timely alerts, enabling IT executives to perform security analytics. When you consider that 25% of all data breaches remain undiscovered by the victim for weeks (or even months), the importance of this becomes obvious.

How do you even start to think about transforming your network?

First and most obvious, you need to clearly define your objectives.

Understand and document what you want to achieve through the implementation of SDN, so that you can measure its success. Remember that while the reporting the financial success of any implementation is important, IT teams may lack the skills to effectively describe business benefits.  Don’t let the hardware/software vendors lead your discussions, as they may have vested interests. Look at open systems and tools where available and understand how these can be supported and used across the organization.

You also need to consider SDN’s impact on your support structure. Explore how process and workflow can be improved, as this can often lead to a change in the support structure for operational teams. Instead of having compute, network and application teams, it is now quite common for organisations to move to an application-centric support model that includes staff with skills in server and network technologies. Tooling may need aligning to this support structure, and it’s important to identify these systems up front.  A good configuration management database (CMDB) really can help to understand enterprise applications, the uses and value of these and the critical components in their delivery.

In conclusion, SDN really is here to stay. CIO evangelists tell us that SDN enables them to design their network to flex on demand to meet the demands of their business, rather than design to peak – with the added layer of security a bonus. Perhaps most compelling is the fact that, with these new technologies, the time of deployment can in some cases be reduced from 500 days to as few as 65.  And this is why very early adopters have tended to include companies undergoing mergers and acquisitions, as SDN allows them to integrate acquisitions onboard faster.

Peter Konings is director of Enterprise Networks and Managed Services at Verizon