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CW500: The rocky road to software-defined everything

Moving to a software-defined environment can deliver a huge range of benefits, but for most organisations it is not an easy journey

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The birth of virtualisation brought about a transformation in IT infrastructure. Suddenly, companies were given the flexibility to optimise the use of hardware within a software-defined environment.  

That same flexibility is now spreading. From datacentres and storage to networks, the world of software-defined everything is here to stay. 

But moving towards this new world takes time, effort and some serious convincing. At the latest CW500 club, experts gave advice and tips on how to do just that.

Rob White, executive director, global database group at Morgan Stanley, said that, done properly, software-defined everything could be a key strategic enabler, opening up new capabilities to the organisation.

“It has the potential to let us optimise, both in terms of costs, but also agility in terms of deployment across those software-defined things we have in the infrastructure, whether it be storage, networks or datacentres,” he said.

“If you have the control, you are not waiting for the supplier to come in, you are not waiting for boots on the ground to come in and deploy what was traditionally all hardware-based. When you have a level of control where you can tune things, you can also optimise your usage and turn parts of it off in low-demand times.”

Software defined networks, said White, meant you could separate the control plane from the data plan, and have a network that evolves with the organisation.

“In a software-defined control plane, you usually get much greater flexibility to customise,” he said.

The long, winding journey

At PaddyPower Betfair, they figured that out a while ago. According to principal automation engineer Steven Armstrong, the company has been on a long journey to get there, but has now more or less moved to a software-defined everything environment. 

“We have taken what we’ve done with virtualisation in the server space and extended it to switching, networking and looking to control the whole datacentre in a programmatic way,” said Armstrong.

The company began its journey because of a need to increase the scale and resilience of its infrastructure.

“Some of the real benefit we have found from it was the ability to scale the datacentre horizontally without compromising the performance of the whole system,” said Armstrong. But he added that when the company started out on its journey, it was hard to find other companies that had done the same thing. “We couldn’t find any use cases,” he said.

Quick scale-up

Anthony Guethert, senior principal at Quintiles IMS, has begun a similar journey. The organisation, which focuses on clinical research and pharmaceuticals, was created by the merger of IMS and Quintiles, which created some real challenges. 

One of the company’s biggest projects at the moment is collecting data on the pharmaceuticals treating cancer across Europe. One of issues it encountered was that when it was gathering information, there were delays in the information flow. Moving to a software-defined environment improved its performance significantly.

“In terms of performance, we were running a lot of databases, collecting data from disparate sources and securing that,” said Guethert. “It is important for us to increase the value we are getting from suppliers providing the datacentre service, but also from the hardware we are using in the datacentres.

“Also, by using products that virtualise and abstract things like storage to multiple parallel processing algorithms, we are able to improve performance significantly. At a minimum, we are looking at a four times improvement in processing speed, and that’s using very simple commodity hardware.

“We have also realised that we need agility to stand up and scale out platforms in different markets. If the opportunity arises to collect data in market areas we haven’t previously done, we would like to act on that quickly and be able to capitalise on those opportunities.”

Huge learning curve

But although the benefits are clear, moving to a software-defined environment brings challenges and learning curves.

“You need to overcome the fear of the unknown,” said Guethert, adding that a period of budget restraint is actually a good time to make changes.

“Convince people by putting together two or three exceptionally good options that are financially compelling and you find that people are motivated themselves,” he said. “When there is budget pressure, there is actually a massive opportunity.”

Guethert’s view is echoed by Morgan Stanley’s Rob White, who said one of the disadvantages is that the market is still moving very slowly towards commodity. Another issue is that organsiations are often silo-based, there are different budgets for different parts of the organisation and the culture is just not there yet, he said.

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“Our organisations were more or less created in an era when you had silos,” he said. “Software-defined is an amalgam of those resources, so you have to plan the roll-out of them across organisational boundaries and force teams to work together in ways they’re not used to. There will be growing pains.” 

White added: “Cultural change in any organisation is the most difficult change you’ll ever do. You need to find the right levers. Most boards, I would imagine, are not going to want to do this full scale right away. They’re not just going to sign off on your plan to move to software-defined everything next week.

“What you have to do is start small, pick your battles and prove yourself.” 

PaddyPower Betfair’s Armstrong said organisations should start off with an initiative “at the base level”, using it to solve a specific problem. 

“Let’s say the network team is having the same problems every day,” he said. “Start small and show them how a different approach could tackle that problem in a way that could really help change the way they do lots of work. 

“A lot of people have a fear of change, so if you can bring them along individually on that journey, that helps.”

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