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SDNs: Defining disruption and opportunity

Networks can seem like the unchanging backbone of the technology world. But software-defined networking is raising the game for the digital transformation era.

Only a few years ago, the idea of software-defined networking (SDN) was still exotic and at the bleeding edge of technologies. But this market has been expanding rapidly. Burgeoning demand for cloud-based services, virtualisation and a move towards a mobile and BYOD world are pushing SDN into the spotlight.

The benefits of SDN are many: Among the chief effects is the flexible maintenance, management and control of complex networks. Another is how SDN boosts the efficiency of data traffic management. SDN is a game-changing technology that enables service providers to develop highly programmable networks. These, in turn, produce reduced operational costs and improved customer service life cycle. As significant, SDN also helps to overcome the limitations associated with traditional network infrastructure.

"SDN is also being seen by some as a catalyst," says Collins Emadau, Comstor Architecture Lead, Enterprise Networking, sub-Saharan Africa. "It's being used to enable the transformation of today's data centres from legacy hardware ones to software-defined infrastructure, as SDN implementations transform networks from over-provisioned, static and inflexible to nimble, efficient and programmable.

Unleashing digital transformation

Today's networks are hardware-centric. Changes to a legacy network require a technology refresh, the addition of modules to activate new services and replacement of hardware to scale services. This can lead to loss of innovation, in the case of a total failure of the system.

These same networks also do little to deliver insights out of the box. They depend on the integration of third-party tools and specialised skills to get meaningful data from the network for improved monitoring, management and security purposes. Incumbent networks also require manually intensive procedures to troubleshoot, resolve issues, update configurations, patch or upgrade software and optimise services. This is where most of IT's time and money is spent.

SDN delivers cheaper gateways at the edge, as most processing is now left to cloud or centrally delivered software controller modules. It can effectively deliver high bandwidth for data, with the flexibility to scale up or down depending on the application need. SDN includes embedded security, making it more attractive to customers.

Fundamentally, SDN provides a rich platform that can help drive the adoption of cloud, IOT and mobility that also supports embedded security capabilities. Businesses can build their own application stack that talks directly to the network through APIs, providing results-based outcomes vastly improved over a current legacy network integration model.

Organisations are realising that SDN is the key needed to unlock digital transformation's value. It can harness the benefits of predictive analytics, and bring deeper and richer experiences to services. SDN is also being viewed as a key enabler of cloud-native apps in hybrid cloud environments. It is particularly important for virtual machine computing at the WAN level. SDN is evolving beyond cloud computing and WAN architectures are starting to change as a result.

Ditto for edge computing and IOT, Emadau explains: "As IOT implementations are moving from public cloud to hybrid environments, they're converging with applications across the board, and SDN is being viewed as a way to boost network security, billing, centralised management, multi-tenancy and more."

Steps in the SDN journey

For businesses of any size, SDN can provide the agility needed to drive the future of their business, delivering dynamic network services to match evolving applications, device, user and security needs. But knowing where to start requires an understanding of SDN building blocks:

"The typical features needed from an SDN infrastructure include software programmability and programming tools, and management of the infrastructure no matter the location. You also need the support of open standards and vendor neutrality to ensure the investment stays in-house. Finally, you have to consider the cost of the physical controllers, edge gateways and switches and costs arising from integration requirements. All these can be overwhelming to a new customer and could affect the experience of transitioning to SDN infrastructure."

It thus stands to reason that a successful SDN environment relies heavily on the right choice of partners. Due to its initial complexity, adopting an SDN can be financially risky. But there is little reward with low risk. Having a reliable technology partner with an in-depth understanding of SDN is essential to manage the financial risk for any business investing in SDN.

Finding the right vendor

Emadau says the right partners take the time to understand SDN and gain a deeper understanding of the architecture and what it can deliver:

"Your choice in SDN partners must ask deep and important questions. Typical questions should include: Where can we start with existing infrastructure? What is the financial gain from transitioning from a hardware-centric network to SDN over the short, medium and long-term? How should you project manage the SDN process? How disruptive can the transition be? And who is responsible for the deliverables to ensure you realise the benefits?"

He adds that it's important to know if the vendor meets your business needs, if the solution will deliver agility, if it is open and programmable, and whether it delivers management capabilities such as a dashboard to track and measure whether service levels are being met.

Social media, mobile devices and cloud computing are pushing traditional networks to their limits. Compute and storage have benefited from innovations in virtualisation and automation, but those benefits are constrained by limitations in the network. Administrators may spin up new compute and storage instances in minutes, only to be held up for weeks by rigid, manual network operations.

SDN has the potential to revolutionise legacy data centres by providing a flexible way to control the network so it can function more like the virtualised incarnations compute and storage that are fuelling the transformation of our world.

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