SDN: a catch-22 for the UK enterprise

'Even the best-designed networks, aligned with business needs, require a major overhaul now and again to remain efficient'

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Software defined networking (SDN) has moved into the spotlight recently. With claims of better network utilisation, this centralised management promises the big advantage of treating the network as a single, virtualised device.

Even the best-designed networks, aligned with business needs, require a major overhaul now and again to remain efficient. SDN decouples the management of the hardware and software of networking by allowing you to rule on the two investment components.

It detaches network control from the hardware and moves this into a software application, where the server will define your network parameters. In essence, it’s ‘clever quality of service’. Prioritise the right data over the network and make sure it gets where it needs to be, as quickly as possible.

A significant issue with SDN however is that it’s a relatively unproven approach. The introduction has, to date, been gradual and patchy with the main beneficiaries being service providers and managers of large data centers that use the network to provide a service that generates revenue.

Manufacturers are starting to look more closely at SDN, with OpenDaylight, a collaboration project set up under The Linux Foundation, moving to unite the industry and create an open and transparent approach to SDN. Reports show the group is making progress on developing this common framework, but in the grand scheme of things there remain few examples of SDN in practice.

Probably the most well known implementation is Google’s OpenFlow. Good news if you’re utilising Google’s massive network, where its servers determine from the outset that your searches and Gmail will be prioritised before anything else. Not so great for the other enterprises running across the Google network; your emails, videos and more will just have to wait their turn.

Data efficiency doesn’t mean cost efficiency

Another problem with the SDN approach is that it is out of reach of the typical enterprise, due to resource constraints and hefty price tags.

It is also not about efficiencies in terms of cost, but efficiency of getting data where you want it to be right away. SDN switches typically cost five times more and this price won’t come down until uptake increases. But greater adoption won’t happen with such a hefty price tag on a relatively unproven approach. It’s a catch-22. Perhaps if you’re backing Google then the benefits are there, but is this the best way? Enterprise could be left high and dry after making a significant investment.

Implementations of SDN are not straightforward either. Standard switches are no longer adequate, with entirely new software required to enable an SDN switch within the network. It’s certainly not an ‘off the shelf’ solution, and this becomes difficult for the enterprise.

>See also: SDN: Ask why, not what

Driving down operational costs

It may well be too early to look at SDN for the majority of enterprises, but managing the network effectively is critical now.  There is a clear requirement to drive down costs and reduce network complexity and that means putting the focus on practical aspects of managing and upgrading a network.

Centralised management of the network and the effective integration of network management systems should be the short-term goal for today’s IT manager. This will enable new switches and network additions to be implemented and configured with ease, from a single place.

SDN is expensive and enterprises need solutions now that can drive efficiencies into managing the network. For example, the Allied Telesis Management Framework can reduce the complexity and cost of network management by up to 60% by automating many tasks that usually require a level of involvement by the network administrator.

It’s a move that will support future SDN adoption, as the technology becomes more proven and cost-effective, ensuring that IT departments can transition to this emerging framework with ease.

I’ve little doubt that SDN has the promise to become the future of network management, as not only data but also switches are programmed from a server.  Future developments should follow the OpenFlow standard in order to bring a complete eco system to support the paradigm SDN.

But until then, IT managers have a fundamental role to ensure the network today is working. Create a resilient and efficient network now that can be managed centrally, and use this as a solid base to integrate SDN in the future.

 

This article was contributed by Chris Hay, solutions architect at Allied Telesis

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