SDN: Focus On The Possibilities, Not Just The Technology - InformationWeek

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Glenn Evans
Glenn Evans
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SDN: Focus On The Possibilities, Not Just The Technology

Engineers tend to focus on the limitations of the tools we own -- how they hold us back from delivering the services the business wants. That can all change, if we play our cards right.

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Software-defined networking is in an enviable position: Everyone is excited about the concept and wants to believe in it. Among networking professionals, expectations are high. But don't make the mistake of looking at SDN as just a new tool to solve yesterday's problems.

Vendors are falling into this trap as they seek to market and monetize SDN before the new-car smell wears off. OpenFlow, because it's a standard, is an exception, but we see SDN-like capabilities baked into a number of proprietary and only partially standards-based systems. Sure, most vendors promise to support OpenFlow in addition to proprietary code, but the temptation is strong to "embrace and extend."

As chief architect of the InteropNet and CEO of a technical design company, I understand that it's normal for IT organizations to come at software-defined networking from the perspective of an engineer: What's broken that can be fixed by the ability to program a network to dynamically change its operating mode or parameters via a programmatic method?

Use SDN to make the current network better, sure. But it's more important to think differently about how SDN will help us design and build the network of the future.

Ahead, Not Back

It's not an easy mindset to break, that tendency to look at new tools as solutions to old problems. We've been beaten down by proprietary feature sets designed for the lowest common denominator. Want to do something out of the ordinary? Sorry. It was a case of: "Here's the network and these are the things it will support. Deal with it." That led CIOs to say: "Sorry, CEO/CMO, but we can't support your project unless we spend [huge sum]. Let's budget for that next year."

No wonder business leaders listened when infrastructure-as-a-service vendors came calling.

SDN can put us back on track to be flexible and open to the requirements of today's business leaders and users -- who are, let's face it, dictating what networking pros need to focus on. The most recent example is consumer technologies, mainly tablets and smartphones. Tomorrow it'll be an explosion of new applications, or something else, and I have no doubt SDN can be part of the solution. Rather than respond to requests for a new feature by saying "not without lots of time and money," SDN can help us say: "Yes, we can do that. We just need a couple of days to tune the infrastructure."

For now, SDN is confined to large data centers. The sweet spot for the Googles and Amazons of the world is the prospect that an app can communicate with the underlying infrastructure to enhance performance or solve problems based on specific parameters. Your average enterprise, however, doesn't have this expertise in house yet. This is the biggest challenge and greatest opportunity for SDN vendors. The hardware is available and at a price in line with market expectations. Now help us learn.

The big challenge for IT teams? Think of SDN not in terms of perpetuating the status quo but as a tool to transform how the network supports the business.

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Glenn Evans
Glenn Evans,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 4:06:41 PM
re: SDN: Focus On The Possibilities, Not Just The Technology
Hi Mike,
Thanks for the feedback.
While the article talks to a call for action from the vendors. I would like to think that there needs to be a change of thinking across all levels of the technology purchasing cycle. That is the real message behind identifying the possibilities. Its based on what I think is a paradigm shift which is more of a top down approach in that we look at the potential application and user interactions rather than the traditional bottom up layered approach.

User Rank: Apprentice
3/7/2013 | 3:23:39 PM
re: SDN: Focus On The Possibilities, Not Just The Technology
Game changing technologies like SDN are always challenged by legacy systems and thinking, but in the long run it will win.

See you at Glenn
User Rank: Strategist
3/6/2013 | 6:10:09 PM
re: SDN: Focus On The Possibilities, Not Just The Technology
[full disclosure: I work at one of the companies in the SDN space and came from one of the major incumbent companies in networking]

I love that you are advocating a position that starts with identifying possibilities rather than merely solving problems. I think the incessant backward-looking mode of operation slows all of us down. The question that comes up for me is around customer behavior. Assume that the vendor side all starts talking about the future and appropriately stop patching existing problems (ie, make a departure from incrementalism). If that happens, will customers change their purchasing behavior? The RFP process that many large companies go through is based on pages and pages of checklist items. The result is a feature list that might or might not be the most relevant features. Rather than looking at new architectures, they start with existing architectures and add an SDN box to the checklist. IMO, this will need to change as well.

Our collective inability to end-of-life things will ultimately determine whether SDN becomes another feature with the same old solutions, or it becomes a new way of doing new things.

Mike Bushong
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