Casting the net for a software-defined future

The practical and cultural challenges of enterprises transforming to software-defined networking

IT professionals strive to refine the abstraction of underlying resources to create pools of virtual and physical resources so that teams can improve their organisations’ customer experiences and business execution.

In particular, a software-defined datacentre (SDDC) promises flexible, easy and fast composition of resources into arbitrary user-defined services. However, many SDDC initiatives hit a roadblock when it comes to integrating network infrastructure into the SDDC transformation. Manual procedures and processes continue to dominate the way networking infrastructures are managed, which is counter to the fundamental aspect of SDDC.

Many challenges have kept IT teams from transforming datacentre networking infrastructures into virtual networks. For example, the networking market has a limited set of options, and some solutions lock organisations down into a particular approach.

For instance, while the open networking touted by cloud leaders such as Facebook, Google and other tier 1 cloud platforms have helped transform the networking arena, each has a very different networking operating system, hardware and designs. Yet all these cloud providers consider their approaches to be open. This should be of concern to IT organisations.

SDN definition

There is also confusion over how IT professionals define a software-defined network (SDN). While IT teams need a clear networking strategy and sufficient understanding of technology, just 55% of telecoms technology decision-makers say they believe that SDN encompasses a programmable, automated and orchestrated network consisting of physical and virtual switches, routers, firewalls and other networking functions. Meanwhile, 36% believe that SDN is a network overlay completely independent of the hardware layer.

Beyond this confusion, there appears to be a lack of industry-wide support. Advanced services, such as firewall, optimisation and load balancing, remain relatively unchanged in the era of the SDN and software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN). Other than a few simple tweaks, layer 4 to 7 networking suppliers have stood back and watched to see what they will need to do to support virtualising the network.

For example, after a decade of development, OpenStack’s networking module, now called Neutron, supports only basic switching interfaces, so the ability to automate and orchestrate across the networking infrastructure remains elusive.

Even with so much current uncertainty within the networking market, networking teams are under pressure to do something. Some organisations are in a situation where their existing networking hardware is getting old, and others are under pressure to support SDDC initiatives.

Networking teams must implement hardware that allows for the datacentre networking infrastructure to be automated, orchestrated and programmable.

Businesses and IT organisations cannot afford dramatic, sudden changes when it comes to adopting new, unproven infrastructure technology. Network switching hardware platforms should offer the least amount of risk by allowing the organisation to evolve.

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Open and flexible hardware that supports maximum switching functionality and interfaces will be able to work with as many controllers, management systems and networking services as possible.

Nor can IT develop a network infrastructure with a myopic strategy, deploying a bunch of physical switches in a single datacentre to provide their enterprise networking requirements. A business-wide network has switches moving data inside multiple datacentres, virtual environments and cloud platforms, and even to where the business touches customers.

IT teams are at different stages of evolving their overall strategy and many have chosen different paths to private and hybrid cloud. This means that to replace current equipment, the new network switching technology deployed will have to be open and flexible to support how the company’s IT strategy evolves and have the capacity to adapt to where IT teams want to go over the next five to seven years.

Amazon, Google, Netflix and other innovative companies have created next-generation networks that are flexible, large, resilient and secure. From an enterprise IT perspective, these web giants have proved it is not necessary to buy network platforms and their components from market leaders, nor is it necessary to acquire a switch operating system and hardware from a single supplier.

But this change is not only about where to buy networking equipment – there is also a change happening in the role of network engineers. The future of networking is morphing from being run by traditional network engineers to those who can write code. Multiple programming languages, modelling approaches and protocols have become essential ingredients for switching hardware and operating systems.

Thanks to abstraction that separates the complexities of networking, these new network engineers – software developers, coders and DevOps professionals – have different requirements, goals and expectations than traditional network engineers.

But onboarding new professionals or updating skillsets takes time. Many organisations do not fully utilise the value of new tech for up to two years. Progress is an evolution of trust more than an evolution of technology. Instead of wasting value for that period on something IT teams may never use, firms should invest in technology that provides value along the entire product lifecycle.

Open, programmable networking switching hardware will accommodate the time it takes to makes changes, update skills and allow for technology to mature.

This article is based on an extract from The Forrester wave: hardware platforms for software-defined networking, Q1 2018.

This was last published in December 2018

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