Prepare to shift to a software-defined world

The channel will play a crucial role in helping businesses realise the potential of software-defined datacentres as acceptance grows. Billy MacInnes reports

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: October 2015

If you believe the pundits, we are moving towards a software-defined world. Software-defined storage (SDS) was the first market out of the blocks, and that has been followed by the software-defined network (SDN). The ultimate aim is to bring it all together in the software-defined datacentre (SDDC).

But just how real is the prospect of a software-defined world, and what role will the channel play in it when (or if) it comes to fruition?

Kevin Bland, director for channel and alliances at Citrix Northern Europe, does not beat about the bush. “While not as mature as trends like BYOD (bring your own device) and cloud, the software-defined world has moved beyond pure hype,” he says. “We might only be a short way down the trend’s path, but there are plenty of promising opportunities for investment in 2014 and the channel will be crucial in helping businesses to realise its potential.” 

Jan Ursi, EMEA director for channel sales and field marketing at Nutanix, sees the arrival of a software-defined world as a natural progression of virtualisation. “VMware, Hyper-V and KVM did a great job in virtualising the compute and memory [server tier] in the datacentre,” he says, “and now it’s time to virtualise the storage and network part, to evolve to a software-defined datacentre which can be programmed easily and does not rely on any special purpose-built hardware [such as storage appliances, for example].” 

Ursi claims Nutanix is “leading the charge on virtualising storage and converging it with the compute tier, providing a scale-out virtual computing platform”. VMware recently validated storage virtualisation with the announcement of vSAN.

“When done right, converging software- defined compute and storage in a single virtual computing platform concept offers radical simplicity, modular and affordable scale-out, and predictable high performance,” Ursi adds.

Virtual architecture 

SDS is often considered to be at a more advanced stage than SDN because storage virtualisation is further down the track than network virtualisation. Tarkan Maner, CEO of  Nexenta, says 2013 marked the stage  at which “the IT world recognised the need for a software-defined storage model that abstracts data from the hardware on which it resides, enabling the creation of a highly scalable logical resource that can be centrally (and automatically) provisioned and managed”. 

He claims it is now a given that this is the only way to truly achieve the vision of a software-defined datacentre where it is possible to “flexibly deploy highly available applications on shared hardware resources, migrate them across locations and scale up and down in response to demand”. 

Maner also predicts that SDS is going to be the next big thing in IT for the next 20 years. “Datacentres have massive overheads in storage. Virtual desktops, the internet of things, video and big data are all driving massive storage growth, but the storage industry has been in hock to the big vendors for too long. 2014 will see the end of vendor lock-in, with Nexenta saying, ‘No to MESS (massively expensive storage systems)’,” he says.

Chris Sherry, Dell UK director for channel and managed service providers, says that while servers and storage will continue to be key areas of investment in 2014, there will be a greater focus on the network becoming part of a more coordinated virtual architecture.

New network architectures and technologies are emerging because of the need to handle the changing size and density of the datacentre, shifts in traffic patterns, and the increasing requirement to simplify network operations. Legacy network operations were not designed for the data driven world we are in today, which is where the challenges lie,” he says.

Virtualisation maturity

Bill Trim, director and co-founder of Company 85, describes software-defined infrastructure as “a compelling approach, especially in large environments where churn is high, responsiveness needs to be quick, and costs need to be kept low”.

But he stresses that software-defined relies on virtualisation to deliver and the maturity of virtualisation differs from compute to storage to networking. Compute virtualisation is very mature, storage virtualisation is now on the agenda for big storage vendors, but network virtualisation is immature, he says. “There are solutions from the big network vendors and server virtualisation vendors, but they do not connect well together, creating unnecessary layers of complexity,” he claims. 

Unsurprisingly, David Noguer Bau, EMEA service provider solutions marketing manager at Juniper, does not agree, and says 2014 is the year of SDN for the datacentre. “We will see many companies piloting it and some live deployments,” he predicts. “Also during 2014 we will see the first generation of network functions being virtualised. NFV [network functions virtualisation] will create a large number of use cases, especially for network service providers.”

Paul Coates, UK and South Africa regional vice-president for Riverbed, agrees, arguing that SDN “is already proving its worth to a number of organisations running very large networks. But he warns it should not be adopted for its own sake but because SDN is “a necessary intermediate step that leads to a more foundational shift in IT: the software-defined datacentre”.

He is adamant that following the virtualisation of servers and desktop PCs, virtualisation is coming to the network, although he admits that full-scale network virtualisation is still in its infancy. 

A point echoed by Mervyn Kelly, EMEA marketing director at Ciena, who says the market is just at the beginning of the SDN and NFV paradigm shift. Yes, the technology exists to virtualise IT resources and many advanced network functions, but he says the industry has yet to prove the business case for doing so. 

Gerry Feeney, head of market development at NEC Europe, is far more bullish. “Many people were surprised at the speed at which trials and production deployments of newly-launched SDN solutions progressed in 2013,” he says, adding that NEC has been deploying production SDN solutions since 2011. 

“There is significant pent-up demand among datacentre operators, telecoms carriers, service providers and global enterprises to break free from using proprietary, vertical networking technology stacks which are more expensive and inflexible to deploy and operate,” he says. 

According to Feeney, SDN is bringing seismic changes to the networking industry by enabling operators to reduce operational and capital costs through improved virtualisation, visualisation and asset utilisation, and to rapidly generate new revenue streams by launching innovative new services more easily. 

He claims SDN is already being deployed for datacentre and enterprise campus use cases. Feeney admits SDN solutions will take longer to mature for wide area carrier transport networks because of the challenges of scalability, interoperability standards and the need for high availability, but migrating to SDN is not a matter of if, but when. 

Jim DeHaven, head of datacentre and virtualisation at Cisco UK & Ireland, says SDN will help to propel a future of networking and enterprise IT that focuses on application centricity. “The next generation of networks will provide application visibility, health checks and deliver services based on an application’s profile, while providing the scale and elasticity needed to support an ever-increasing number of apps and devices,” he predicts.

“Cisco has taken a significant step towards an industry-leading SDN ecosystem with the launch of its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) earlier this year,” says DeHaven. “ACI marks a significant shift from separated virtual and physical IT resources to a unified environment where the network can be centrally managed and provisioned.” 

Mike Hemes, EMEA vice-president of sales at Silver Peak, wryly observes that there has been an explosion of software-defined terminology in recent years, from SDN to SDDC and SDS, but people are still “learning the ins and outs of adoption”. Nevertheless, he is convinced the software-defined world will disrupt what we understand about networking, storage and service delivery.

“By delivering more layer 4-7 services as software, solution delivery can be made both simpler and faster. This can allow applications to be delivered more cost-effectively, in minutes rather than months, making the IT organisation much more agile and efficient. This is driving more IT organisations to embrace the software- defined datacentre,” he says. 

Alex Ball, UK & Ireland regional manager at Veeam Software, thinks we are already living in a software-defined world. Virtualisation has “turned the market on its head”, he argues. “An IT environment is now far more defined by the hypervisor it runs on than the increasingly commoditised hardware that houses it,” says Ball. A more software-focused approach has already become acceptable in areas such as backup and replication, delivering “a host of new capabilities that the physical infrastructure alone could never hope to match”. 

The software-defined reseller 

While opinion may differ on how far advanced different parts of the software-defined model are, most observers believe channel partners will continue to play an integral role in the software-defined world of the future.

“The software-defined reseller will be a feature of 2014,” says Laura Bouchard, sales director at Avnet Technology Solutions UK. “Channel partners will play a vital role in the software-defined vision as they are required to deliver server, storage and networking solutions that seamlessly involve software applications from smaller niche suppliers,” she adds. “The good news is that these smaller players often represent an opportunity for increased profitability, as specific applications are less price sensitive.”

Bland at Citrix also believes that the channel will play a crucial role in helping businesses to embrace innovative technologies and navigate trends like that of the software-defined world. In their guise as trusted advisers and partners, channel partners will help businesses to “nurture new skill sets and deploy the right tools and technologies to embrace the future of IT to remain competitive”. 

Bouchard says the long-term future for channel involvement is good because customers will continue to demand the best solution for their individual needs. “Channel partners will have an  ideal opportunity to carve out a niche in the complex and often confusing technology landscape of the cloud, software and converged infrastructures,” she says.

Silver Peak’s Hemes says that because transforming the enterprise with software-defined datacentres running virtual network services will be seen as a radical change in thinking, “the channel will need to be intimately involved before and after any deployment to make sure the organisation understands all of the benefits, weaknesses and challenges”. 

With many businesses under pressure to understand how software-defined technologies will work for them and what the benefits can be, he says the channel will play an important part in providing the expertise and guidance to help enterprises “to evolve into the any time, anywhere world that is increasingly being demanded”. 

Nutanix’s Ursi says channel partners will evolve from people who glue tin together to business enablers that provide smart solutions and custom applications. “To focus on these more valuable solutions and services, the IT infrastructure part needs to become nearly an invisible resource that is elastic and can be consumed in small and flexible increments,” he adds. 

Juniper’s Noguer Bau says channel partners will have a great opportunity to integrate best of breed and build their own systems, because no vendor will have all the software-defined pieces in-house.

“In addition, SDN will bring existing channel partners into new areas – they can grow from being a network-centric partner to become a datacentre integrator. SDN and NFV will completely transform the network architecture. This will create a lot of network transformation projects that partners can capitalise on,” he adds.

Riverbed’s Coates says although a true SDDC is some distance off for many businesses, channel partners can ensure they adopt the right infrastructure elements early “and begin to implement virtualisation and SDN as they are able, which will help them progress towards a fully virtualised datacentre”.

He describes the SDDC as a game-changing shift in IT. “Those that have seen it coming – and have prepared themselves – will be able to realise the benefits sooner. Those organisations will gain a competitive advantage over those which are still waiting to make sure the SDDC is not another 3D television frivolity.” 

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