Software-defined networking: gathering momentum in the enterprise?

Suppliers are pushing the benefits of software-defined networking harder than ever, and enterprises are starting to take the plunge rather than remaining on the sidelines

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Is software-defined networking (SDN) ready to be adopted in a big way in the enterprise? It’s been slow going so far, but there are signs things are changing.

Plenty of suppliers in the network space are betting that a move to SDN is coming – and fast – particularly with the rapid growth in the use of cloud services by businesses across the board.

But the question of how SDN is best applied in enterprises today remains to be fully answered, since SDN in its many manifestations is still only in the early stages of adoption worldwide.

How should we characterise the enterprise market for SDN today? Even if businesses are aware of the benefits it has delivered for telcos and other communication service providers, so far it’s the suppliers of SDN-related services (SD-WAN in particular as an enterprise-ready option) that remain the big enthusiasts for the capabilities of the technology. Adoption and use cases still lag.

Supplier enthusiasm

Chris Folkerd, director of enterprise technology at managed hosting business UKFast, puts a supplier position on SDN; like others, he’s convinced that widespread embrace of the technology is coming soon.

“SDN as a technology for users has only matured over the past three to four years. But it’s important for enterprises to have systems that aren’t limiting in the future. Dialogue with providers is critical to ensure you aren’t stuck with a solution that can’t adapt as the technology changes,” he says.

“SDN has come into its own alongside the development of cloud technology,” adds Folkerd. “SDN technology automates systems, making it possible to launch virtual machines [VMs] and services and have a network interface, IP or even full a topology configured without human involvement. That’s a powerful proposition already.

“In the past few years, SDN has also paved the way for the development of newer technologies purely within the software domain – from software-defined firewalls and load balancers to full SDN stacks. It means the entire networking stack is effectively now programmable.”

What are the benefits of this for networking? Try these three for starters: speeding up launch, giving more flexibility in terms of configuration and, because the system can handle things automatically, adjusting to set requirements without human intervention.

“If a website is experiencing an increase in demand and a business suddenly needs more load balancers or web servers, it’s now possible to configure those on the fly,” says Folkerd.

The analyst view

Among analysts, there’s a similar sense about the upward trajectory of SDN, but less certainty about its immediate application in the enterprise.

Gartner analysts note in recent papers that there is lots of take-up by communication service providers (CSPs). Its reckoning is that in mature markets, 80% of CSPs will run SDN or network functions virtualisation (NFV) trials or projects by 2020 – up from about 10% in 2015.

This is because operators are investing to extend the lifetime of their existing assets and increase the agility of maintaining their legacy assets.

By 2019, moreover, reducing network complexity with remain a priority for the CSPs, as weak increasing levels of service flexibility and reducing operational costs through virtualised and software-driven infrastructures.

In parallel, Gartner sees enterprises as able to deploy flexible and dynamic products more rapidly, increasing the attractiveness of cloud and internet of things (IoT) usage. But still, it will remain a minority interest: by 2021, perhaps a tenth of mid-sized and large enterprises will have transitioned from piloting (during 2017) to using on-demand SDN-enabled services.

And there’s a caveat even in this analysis. Gartner’s Joe Skorupa and Danilo Ciscato note that SDN isn’t even a well-defined concept right now: “SDN is an architectural model for networking, not a reference design based on a well-designed set of protocols or standards, and there are many ways to implement it. Multiple solutions inspired by SDN are available in the market, but they are largely different in architecture.” 

To deliver on the promises of SDN, leaders responsible for networking must ensure datacentre network initiatives succeed by focusing on improving outcomes such as increased automation, better agility, lower cost and reduced supplier lock-in.

“SDN has driven a dramatic shift in expectations about how enterprise networks – especially in datacentres – are designed, built and run, and how hardware and software are acquired. However, the original innovative architectural approach has achieved limited acceptance in the enterprise even though interest remains high,” say Skorupa and Ciscato.

What level of take-up are we talking so far? Last year Gartner estimated there were less than 2,000 deployed networks that meet the architectural requirements for SDN, the majority of them in Japan.

It says this slow-to-change story can be blamed on the immaturity of the standards, lack of immediate business drivers and the market power of incumbent suppliers to maintain set-ups and keep their market position. So, a way still to travel.

SDN in practice – Lovespace

One area where SDN capabilities are being used on the ground today is in software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN).

Canadian supplier Cogeco Peer 1, for example, partnering with Nuage Networks from Nokia, has an SD-WAN offering delivering remote set-up and a self-service customer portal that promises to optimise company networks and tap cloud, colocation and hosting services.

An established trial customer of the service is a UK-based disruptor business, storage outfit Lovespace. Director of technology Dave Walker was attracted by the potential of SD-WAN to help easily architect and manage secure network connections to branch locations as it grows.

“The original strategy of Lovespace was for full ownership of our storage units, but three years ago we started to look at using partners like venues with spare storage capacity – and at courier capacity, as Lovespace collects all items to be stored. This shift to using third parties had implications on security, among other things. It brought with it new risks and contract obligations,” he says.

Being in the business of moving physical goods, Lovespace also needs specialist label printing at the storage units it uses and needs to ensure General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance.

“It’s a particular set of management challenges, and Cogeco Peer 1’s SD-WAN delivers. It allows us to roll out to new sites with just internet access – an Ethernet connection or Wi-Fi or a dongle. So long as we have that, we can plug in and configure for our needs,” says Walker.

Lovespace had a need to apply different tiers of access and control in different locations, which the SD-WAN enables.

“We have two main sites that we own, plus other trusted sites. We can give a site full access to a datacentre or else set up a more limited version – and we can control all those network choices centrally,” says Walker. 

“If a third party wants to plug in, we can control every aspect and ensure the right ports are opened. It’s crucial, as we’ve warehousing from the Scottish Highlands down to London and right into Cornwall.”

Walker says the same control could have been enabled with other web-based technologies coupled with some ad hoc network configuration, but SD-WAN was a better bet for its flexibility and more.

“We are a small business still, but the partners we work with mean our needs are at the enterprise level. We also need capability to manage networking traffic right across Europe, with secure handovers of data. SD-WAN gives us that control. If we want a small server in Portugal, say, that replicates our central logistics controls, it’s straightforward. The software gives us a point-to-point network system,” he adds.

What does SDN mean for mobility?

Generally speaking, SDN technology complements the extra security measures enterprises need for mobile.

In most organisations, different teams will focus on these two areas. The network team will be driving performance and efficiency and the mobile team will be driving end-user productivity and data security.

“Flexible network provisioning will, of course, help the mobile experience since mobile endpoints will be driving more of the traffic through the network,” says Ojas Rege, chief strategy officer at MoibleIron.

“Mobile security itself will require additional, more granular access control across the network so only trusted endpoints and app can access business data. These mechanisms will sit outside the traditional perimeter security model.”

James Harrop, consulting systems engineer at Cisco, adds: “SDN in terms of mobility – more specifically software-defined access – gives you that true wired and wireless experience and the ability to take advantage of features from both the wired infrastructure and wireless infrastructure.

“In other words, SDN helps to deliver a homogeneous solution. Among other things, policy – whether access, segmentation or QoS [quality of service] – is defined centrally and is applied consistently across both wired and wireless. It’s a really compelling element of the SDN offer.”

A serious point here is that Lovespace’s particular business model means it has specialist needs that more conventional storage businesses don’t have, but delivering on these also opens up a potential competitive advantage.

“We made this decision to move from a wholly owned to a variable cost model, which means we need quick deployment and plug-in boxes because our business cycle can be so compressed,” says Walker.

“We have the in-house software development team to re-architect our solution on the fly and to allow us to manage in different ways without needing an on-premises hardware install. If we were a bigger, more mature outfit, we could project a few years ahead and do things differently, perhaps, but with all the variables we are dealing with it was cheaper and quicker and scalable to adopt SD-WAN.

“Also, it is backed up by an external support team that knows just what to if something goes awry. Having this system means we can provide support for instant storage opportunities – like warehousing for retailers in their busy periods, such as Christmas and Black Friday promotions.”

Susan Bowen, vice-president and general manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Cogeco Peer 1, adds that the move into SD-WAN as a managed service provider to the likes of Lovespace provides a point of differentiation in a market where last-mile connections have become a race to the bottom.

“SDN is an opportunity because it delivers for anyone building in a cloud-native space. With SDN, you just need a user with broadband and the business can get back to worrying about its business outcomes – and less time on the behind-the-scenes tech,” she says. 

“The offer we’ve developed with Nuage means we can offer the traditional network infrastructure controls for wide area networks, for load balancing and so on, but remove the reliance on OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] and deliver good savings. Plus it plays perfectly for companies needed multi-tenanted data solution – for providing consumption-based online services to customers, for example.”

What next?

Lovespace’s story is one that demonstrates how the developing fortunes of SDN and SD-WAN are connected to the adoption of cloud computing by enterprises. The mass market use case for SDN and SD-WAN, in other words, lies with the way cloud is growing and the use of mobile devices is growing. The complexity that’s created in the network as a result is a new problem, but SDN and SD-WAN provide an answer.

Juniper Networks provides equipment for telecoms providers, CSPs and enterprises. Its service provider director, David Noguer Bau, says branch network deployments, the cloud and the multi-tenanted environment are clearly the primary immediate drivers for SDN in the enterprise, but its application to the IoT is also significant.

“Companies will be able to cut costs with SD-WAN because the hardware it can run while delivering a good service is cheaper than many alternatives, but further out the IoT will take centre stage. We can imagine a model where businesses are managing specialised controllers and getting intelligence from tens of thousands of sensors to store in the cloud. It’s another way of bring compute power to the user,” he says.

For now, though, it remains up to enterprises, in concert with suppliers, to understand the best application to SDN to their particular challenges.

James Harrop, consulting systems engineer at Cisco, says: “SDN has provoked enterprises to really think about how their infrastructure supports their business – not  just keeping the lights on, but doing things more efficiently while also giving more control and visibility.

“Under the hood, technology is more complex and we require a more intuitive interface – think of the smartphone – to drive it and meet our requirements. So, for enterprises, SDN is about simplifying the network interface, having the network infrastructure support the business’ people, systems, process and applications.”

So, if there’s a road still to travel, the suppliers reckon the momentum is there now – and the year ahead should be a busy one in SDN.

Read more about SDN

  • The rise of hyper-convergence is radically changing how enterprises manage their IT estates, but its effect on the network has yet to be fully realised.
  • The arrival of SD-WAN technology effectively removed telcos’ lock-in for WAN services. We assess the current market.
  • Beyond the marketing hype, does intent-based networking mean anything, and can it improve how your infrastructure runs?

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