The SDN state of play: first steps for the enterprise

Software-defined networking experts say telcos will be first to push SDN ahead of enterprises and suggest how CIOs can prepare

Software-defined networking (SDN) is moving into the proof of concept stage among tier one telecoms providers and larger IT services and outsourcing players, but will take a little while longer to appear on the radar of the average enterprise CIO.

This is the verdict of experts in the field at Juniper Networks and Brocade, two network suppliers that are investing heavily in software-defined networking.

Talking about the telco journey towards SDN, Juniper’s Nigel Oakley, director of EMEA Cloud Building Centre of Excellence, says the biggest providers started to look at how they were going to use SDN in mid-2013.

“Once they are clear on use cases, they can start talking to suppliers to understand how they can match capabilities to use cases. The next, most advanced phase is to start to develop proof of concept (POC) tests,” says Oakley.

“At the leading edge some companies are coming to the end of the POC phase and starting to ask what they need to do to deploy. That will take them six to nine months, so we will probably start to see deployments in early 2015.”

Kelly Herrell, VP and GM of software networking at Brocade, agrees. He says: “The brutality of the market is driving such a need for agility and cost-cutting that they are forced into it. As cloud providers and telcos prove SDN out, enterprises will follow.

“The pattern emerging among the telcos is that they need to use SDN because customers are demanding more agility.”

Brocade has already moved into the POC phase with at least one tier one European provider, and Juniper has recently announced that Italian incumbent operator Telecom Italia has also jumped into the pool.

We leverage Juniper’s expertise to make SDN/NFV technologies the key to shortening time-to-market and improve cost effectiveness

Paolo Fasano, Telecom Italia

Telecom Italia is in the process of adopting its MX Series 3D Universal Edge Routers on its service point of presence (PoP) infrastructure to act as an edge services aggregation node and an SDN gateway connecting physical and virtualised networks.

The telco is trialling Juniper’s Contrail SDN and network function virtualisation (NFV) controller with OpenStack to help it create more flexible, dynamic and bespoke service chains.

Paolo Fasano, Telecom Italia head of data networks innovation, says the adoption of Juniper technology as a service hub will give him the flexibility to introduce new service features to customers.

“We leverage Juniper’s expertise to make SDN/NFV technologies the key to shortening time-to-market and to improve cost effectiveness,” says Fasano.

Juniper’s David Noguer Bau says telecoms companies are struggling to keep up with the innovation on display at major cloud owners and over-the-top (OTT) internet companies such as AWS, Rackspace and Google. He positions SDN as a means to fight back.

It’s a view shared by Herrell, who says telco business models are being “hammered” by the ability of the likes of Amazon to spin up a new virtual machine and roll out new services in minutes.

“It’s fascinating how telcos define what their threats are. For example, you wouldn’t say YouTube is a threat to a telco but when you see how video traffic bludgeons the network and the telco doesn’t touch it, it makes sense.

“OTT utilisation is so highly correlated with smartphones, the most expensive part of the network, hence SDN and NFV, which at first were about cost, are now about the ability to spin up different services.”

So with suppliers powering ahead, what steps can CIOs take now to prepare for SDN?

Watch the cloud providers

Herrell says potential buyers should keep a close eye on what large cloud providers such as Rackspace and AWS are getting up to. “Make an estimate and then proceed piecemeal by copying them,” he says.

“What cloud providers do is they have servers and storage on a generic layer 2 network and they tell enterprises to move their workloads into that environment. Enterprises then say, ‘sure, we’d like to but I can’t give up my firewall or my VPN.’

“The cloud provider’s only answer is to buy that too, and host it for you, but then they find they need capex outlay to get the workloads into the cloud and can’t cost it back to you, and it takes weeks to get it up and running, so out of necessity SDN comes in.

“I’d encourage CIOs to look at that model and ask how they can use software to start providing rich services when they would otherwise be relying on buying expensive hardware.”

Keep all your options open

Nobody really knows where the SDN journey will take the industry. Innovation is happening at a phenomenal rate, says Oakley, and enterprises must take care not to end up locked into one direction if it goes somewhere unexpected.


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Herrell adds: “Keep an eye on the long view, and if it shifts, you need to shift too. Networking is now going through its open systems era, like compute did in the 1990s, and when that happens and you desegregate hardware and software a new ecosystem opens. You want to be able to take advantage of that and not get locked into proprietary solutions.

“Openness is critical because adoption is being driven by service providers, and I have never before seen such a large set of buying power as a bunch of service providers unified and shrill that the solutions should be open.”

Realign your skills base

Oakley believes SDN will herald an industry-wide change that will require a major realignment of skills.

“The network guys know about protocols, networks, design, architecture, service provision and a little about IT because it has made some inroads,” he explains.

“What we’re now going to see is a cross-population of skills between those domains. Those who are really successful as virtualisation gets into networking are going to be the network guys who can adopt and understand IT practice and components.

“My gut feeling is I don’t know how much IT will go into the network side but I can see big changes occurring in terms of skills profiles, and not for the first time in this industry – the whole history of the IT and networking industry has been evolution and skill changes. People in the industry should be used to that paradigm.”

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