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Catch the software-defined wave

Resellers need to learn fast if they are to cash in on growing interest in software-defined networking and storage Billy MacInnes reports

Are we on the verge of the software-defined era in IT? Some say it’s already arrived with the huge adoption of server virtualisation and the rising number of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) implementations demonstrating the enthusiasm for software-defined processes at the compute level.

People may not have called it that, but virtualisation is software-defined compute.Now, the focus is shifting to the two other major silos in the IT eco-system: storage and networking.

According to a recent report from Research and Markets, the total software-defined datacentre (SDDC) market (which includes compute, storage and networking) is expected to grow from $21.78bn in 2015 to $77.18bn by 2020, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28.8%. The report – Software Defined Data Center (SDDC) Market by Solution, by End User and by Regions: Global Forecast to 2020 – predicts the software-defined networking (SDN) market will register the highest CAGR for the period. Looked at from the outside, you would expect software-defined storage (SDS) to be a more likely candidate for the next wave of adoption due to the perception that networking is a far more complex environment to shift to a software-defined model

SDN adoption ahead of SDS

Graham Brown, managing director of Gyrocom, acknowledges SDN is the last silo to feature in the software-defined conversation because it’s a more complex model for people to get their heads around, but he claims: “In terms of customer interaction, software-defined networking is very quickly overtaking software-defined storage. We have a core capability in SDS, but feel we get more traction in the SDN space.”

Brown argues this is because moving to a software-defined model requires automation to deliver the real benefits. Merely introducing automation at the storage level won’t provide much of an advantage if you still have to break out of the automation to perform network tasks.

Phil Croxford, UK channel head at VMware, is another who believes SDN is getting more traction from customers than SDS. He says there is unprecedented interest in the networking model.

Croxford reveals that two particular use cases are driving customer interest in SDN. On the security side, micro segmentation, which allows customers to create firewalls and security at the virtual machine (VM) level, is piquing interest. They might not be asking specifically for SDN, but they are keen to secure their environment down to VM level. It’s also attractive from the DevOps side because networking has “typically been the bottleneck” in trying to provide an agile development environment.

Alexander Jeffries, managing director of Stordis, a specialist networking  and storage distributor, agrees SDN is further advanced than SDS in terms of market readiness and acceptance.

He says this is partly down to a reluctance by enterprise storage managers to risk storage corruption and data loss. “Network downtime is irritating, storage corruption and data loss are irreversible,” Jeffries observes. “Modern SDS solutions reduce the likelihood of corruption and data loss if they are correctly implemented, but enterprise storage managers are naturally wary of being the ones to test this out.”

Evan Unrue, Emea converged infrastructure technical lead at Avnet Technology Solutions (ATS), says there has been “accelerated uptake” of SDN in the service provider and enterprise space “due to the scale of services each needs to deliver and the need to rapidly make these services available to their customers and internal users respectively”.

But while SDN reduces the manual and laborious networking-related tasks involved through automation and policy, Unrue says it is not for the faint-hearted: “It fundamentally affects the core of how these businesses have been delivering network services for years. As such it is still in the early adoption phase, but many users have the appetite to implement SDN and reap the rewards.”

The path to maturityJason Peach, principal consultant at Networks First, hasn’t seen any demand from its channel partners for SDN at present. “SDN is still immature, service provider-centric, and not yet something most enterprise customers, and therefore our partners, are considering much at all,” he says.

Peach argues that aside from very large enterprises with lots of skilled technical resources, SDN remains the domain of large cloud service providers and will probably continue to be so until it becomes simple to understand (from a business as well as technical perspective), deploy, maintain and operate.

He believes that without serious demand from customers, few channel partners will invest in skills and certifications for SDN – unless they are engaging very large multinationals.

Describing SDS and SDN as strategic building blocks towards the SDDC, Markus Nispel, vice-president of solutions architecture and innovation at Extreme Networks, says they are maturing at different paces but both are being deployed by customers today. He believes it is perfectly viable to implement an SDN solution but it is reliant on how well vendors can articulate the benefits and requirements of SDN to the organisation.“Currently, the solution is not as open as expected,” he admits, “and in this sense it is lagging behind SDS.”

Tarkan Maner, CEO at SDS vendor Nexenta, says the technology is still young, but SDS has continued to build momentum throughout 2015. Enterprises across the globe in industries such as financial services, healthcare, telecommunications, technology and hosting are moving petabytes of their storage to open-source-driven SDS solutions, he claims, citing the likes of Vesk, Bluebolt and Wipro that have embraced SDS deployments in the past 12 months.

Channel acceptance

Whichever silo is further advanced in adopting a software-defined model, the fact that customers are interested in the technology represents a potentially significant opportunity for channel partners, especially as it fits so neatly with cloud computing.

“You can’t talk about software-defined without talking about hybrid cloud – the two are intrinsically linked,” says VMware’s Croxford. “Software-defined technology is a stepping stone to the hybrid cloud and the ability to seamlessly move workloads around from public to private to on-premise."

ATS’s Unrue believes the role SDS plays as an enabling technology behind a raft of hyper-converged offerings hitting the market over the past year has helped it gain wider channel acceptance. “As user demand grows for SDS, the channel will be ready to respond to maximise on the opportunity,” he says.

In addition, many storage vendors have started to package their software with x86 hardware, making it more accessible to traditional infrastructure resellers.

Unrue accepts that many business partners are still inclined towards the traditional approach to selling storage, but says there is definite interest in SDS. “Partners are being asked by users to focus on delivery of applications and services rather than simply providing point storage products. As a result, more conversations are happening around converged and hyper-converged solutions, including SDS,” he says.

Vendors are making it easier by packaging SDS, giving partners an opportunity “to broaden their capabilities and offer the storage agility true SDS promises to their customers”.

Unrue singles out hyperconverged infrastructure as a means to provide potential “for the delivery of margin-rich services and application consulting to help customers maximise their return against this new architecture model”.

For its part, Avnet is investing in programmes to help business partners gain the skills and capabilities to sell SDS, converged and hyper-converged technology more effectively.

Learn from vendors

Nexenta’s Maner argues vendors need to take the responsibility to ensure the channel is ready to engage in the software-defined trend. “This can be achieved through investing in programmes which raise awareness, enablement and lead generation,” he says.

Because SDS is still new for a lot of the channel community, the Nexenta Partner Programme allows partners to work closely with Nexenta teams on early deals so they gain the knowledge of the technology.

He adds that partners looking to capitalise on this software-defined trend should be having conversations with customers now while they are building their future SDS strategies.

Stordis’s Jeffries says the promise of being able to use low-cost commodity hardware with massively reduced margins in all areas of software-defined infrastructure could be viewed as a disaster for the channel. “It promises just as many opportunities for shrewd channel partners. It is the ‘usual suspect’ big-brand vendors and those resellers that align their business models too tightly with this dying paradigm who are going to suffer,” he says.

He draws a parallel with a similar transition at an earlier point in the history of IT when he warns that partners need “to be careful they don’t get stuck selling the networking/storage equivalent of Sun Solaris servers or proprietary Unix hardware in a market that runs Linux on a commodity x86 box”.

Mark Pearce, Emea channel director for networking at Dell, observes there is “still a lot of misunderstanding and a lack of education around what SDN is and how to implement it, there’s still a lot more education that needs to be done, certainly in the reseller space”.

He says partners have a very familiar role to play as trusted advisers to their customers: “SDN is aburgeoning market with a number of companies bringing out solutions to market offering different types of functionality and capability. It’s difficult for customers to understand the
difference between them and what is best for them, so this is definitely an area for the reseller community.”

Software-defined datacentresPearce claims enterprise networks are starting to seriously consider how they could utilise SDN in their environments and predicts it could become a mainstream type of deployment in the datacentre environment in the next three to five years, so it’s important to ensure resellers understand the technology and the benefits it can provide to customers.

Pearce also draws an analogy with an earlier period of the IT industry’s history, pointing to the time when people were tied in to large mainframes with a limited choice of applications until the arrival of x86 encouraged application development on servers: “SDN is the next iteration of that taking place, and this time it’s in the networking world.”

Gyrocom’s Brown says he’s surprised more channel partners haven’t got to the stage that his company has with SDN, especially bigger companies such as SCC and Computacenter.

He wonders whether this may be because the software-defined model and the move to the SDDC brings with it the requirement to consolidate many technical disciplines which makes navigating difficult. With the silo model of IT, many of those that deliver IT take a silo approach in the way they sell and support technology.

Gyrocom has had to bring on board new skills, including an element of coding, as well as in areas such as automation and workloads.

“It’s been relatively straightforward for us to take those skills on board,” Brown claims, “but some of our peers are struggling with that. There’s a recognition that you need to build an automation capability to leverage the SDDC. That isn’t something the big players have typically done.”

There’s also the fact that some big Cisco resellers are “protecting large installed bases, so how do they take on a proposition like VMware NSX? We didn’t have a Cisco installed base to protect”.

Changing the sales pitch

Croxford agrees that software-defined technology represents a challenge in the way its partners address customers. “They’re set up and structured in a way that maps how customers are set up and structured, with networking people talking to networking people for example,” he says.

Partners need to change that dynamic as the conversations need to take place above the networking or storage level “because a lot of people we’re talking to about networking or storage have deep skills but what we’re talking about is disruptive”. They see it as threatening to them individually. “People need to look objectively at IT infrastructure, and partners have to engage organisations in very different way.”

Also, the business case for SDS or SDN isn’t as clearly defined as it was for server virtualisation where the battle to convince people to adopt the technology and understand the business case was helped by the fact it had “such a clear ROI”.

Many benefits of SDS or SDN are not directly apparent in immediate commercial terms, Croxford admits. “Micro segmentation is about better security, DevOps is around agility and faster time to market. The financial benefits are less clear so SDN has to be sold on the business benefits.”

Unrue says that with customers “articulating the business outcomes they want to achieve rather than the technology they want to buy, the channel needs to align its go-to-market model to support business outcomes rather than product sales”.

To achieve this, he says they need to make customers aware of what’s available, invest in the skills to deliver and consult on the technologies and help customers “understand how they can bridge the gap between the age-old methods of deploying and managing their infrastructure and the brave new world of the software-defined datacentre”.

Skills and understanding

SDS is a significant change that requires a rethink when it comes to pre-sales, design and services skills, says Unrue.

Sales teams will need training “to look for additional opportunities around services and consultancy alongside technology”. By gaining the skills and capabilities to sell SDS, partners will have the ability to transform their businesses and capitalise on future customer demands.

As for SDN, partners will need to broaden their skills. “They will need to take a more consultative approach to get closer to a customer’s core business processes and move away from being technology or product focused. An emphasis on policy-driven, automated processes will drive the demand for SDN and it will happen, just not immediately,” says Unrue

Dell’s Pearce is bullish about the software-defined age, particularly when it comes to SDN: “We have conversations [about SDN] on a daily basis and we’re winning business around deploying SDN. It’s happening today. Resellers need to stop being afraid of the technology. They need to understand SDN to help them to move forward.”

Nispel describes SDN and SDS as critical in nature to the operation of a software-defined datacentre. He sees a role for channel partners in augmenting solutions to virtualise the network with professional integration services to guide the customer during their journey.

“The SDDC offers a great opportunity for channel partners to provide differentiated services as part of a large-scale project and even change their business model to become a managed service provider using SDDC technologies as a delivery vehicle,” he says.

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